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“Oh, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!”

My irritated exclamation seemed to almost echo in the small bookstore as I vented my frustration at the young cashier lady. I’m sure my yell would’ve turned some heads if it wasn’t for the fact that I was the only customer there. As one would expect, she was taken aback, and was quick to bow apologetically.

“I-I’m sorry, but as I said, we’re out of stock for that specific volume, and the next shipment won’t arrive until next week,” I could hear her apologizing.

I sighed as I slipped my hands into my hoodie’s pockets, and glanced at the cashier. Well, if we’re being completely honest, it’s not her fault. I was pissed because this was the third damn bookstore I’ve visited today. Third! I almost ran here just to make sure I’d get here before the place would close for the day! And it’s always the same story: out of stock for the second volume of Warriors of Lotus. Who the hell has ever heard of a novel selling out in multiple bookstores? I mean, the first volume was probably the best shit I’ve ever read, but still, this is ridiculous…

Seconds passed by as I stood there, musing on the hours I had just wasted, all the while listening to the low, high-pitched humming of a fluorescent lamp mixed with some B-grade pop song quietly playing from the speakers.

Slowly and unsurely, the cashier raised her head. “…A-As I said, I’m truly sorry—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I cut her off with a wave of a hand. “Heard you the first time…”

It was no use to stay here and keep giving her a piece of my mind, so I saw for the best to make my leave. Just before I exited the store, I happened to spot a poster on the wall, advertising the second volume of Warriors of Lotus. It was like one last ‘fuck you’ to me and the hours of walking I had to go through today.

If my tired legs didn’t give away the fact that I’ve walked a ton today, it’d be the darkened sky. The sun was halfway through disappearing on the other side of the horizon, painting the clouds in darker shades of orange, and making way for the night sky. I glanced around, looking at the unfamiliar neighborhood I was currently at. I was at the other side of the town, about an hour away from my home. All for one fucking book…

My gloomy face broke into a faint grin. “Heh, getting this worked up over a book…” I quietly muttered to myself. Oh well, even though I wanted to get it today, I can always get it next week.

As I kept glancing around, my gaze came upon a vending machine, not too far away. At the same time, I was fiddling with the money in my pocket. Eh, might as well get a drink. After buying myself a can of orange soda, I decided to head around the corner to the riverbank to enjoy my drink, sitting on some stone steps. Facing east, it was a prime spot to witness the setting sun’s light slowly disappear from the buildings on the other side of the river. Ugh, after all that frustration, I felt like having a smoke. If I had known this would’ve taken so long, I would’ve taken my cigarettes with me. I took my time to finish my drink, after which I threw the can away and stood up, stretching my legs. It’s gonna take another damn hour just to walk home…

About half an hour of walking later I woke up from my thoughts, finding myself in yet another unfamiliar neighborhood. Seeing how dark it had gotten, I realized to take a look at my watch, seeing just how late it was. Well, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry. As long as I headed east, I’d eventually find a place I’d actually recognize, and thus find my way home. As I strolled along the dimly lit street, I quickly noticed how peaceful it was. Though it was a Friday night, it still had been a while since I came across another pedestrian... Or, at least that’s what I thought, until I saw someone appearing from around a corner, a bit further ahead of me, and completely ruining the mystifying atmosphere. Yeah, of course there are other people living in this town.

As I kept on walking, I noticed how the said person was heading towards me. One of us needs to yield and make way, unless we want to crash into each other. I decided to stand my ground and let the other person do it. As we were closing in on each other, I started recognizing some of the person’s features. Like the fact that it was actually a girl. A young one, maybe the same age as I. She was carrying a grocery bag. Oh, and she also had a small, bushy-like ponytail. I only noticed that because she was constantly glancing around her… shoulder…

All the while looking scared…

I only had seconds to wonder about it, until we finally came face to face with each other. I quickly halted to let the girl pass, completely forgetting my plans of standing my ground. The girl, however, also came to a stop, right in front of me. The whole scenario surprising me, I just stood there, unsure what to do, what to say. The girl was glancing downwards, a worried expression on her face. I just knew she had stopped in front of me for a reason, but it took me a few seconds too long to actually ask her about it.

My lips ajar, it took me a moment to cough up the question: “Uh, what—?”

“Please,” she cut me off with a quiet plea.

Her soft voice was trembling. The light of the street lamp reflected from her watery, light brown eyes. This gal was actually scared of something. But what?

My thought process was cut short by a noise coming from around a corner – the same corner around which this girl came from. As the noise drew closer, I could recognize it belonging to multiple people. Multiple men. Drunken men. Yeah, that’s drunken nonsense they’re talking, alright.

The approaching sound caused the girl to twitch slightly. “I… I think I’m being followed.”

“Yeah?” was the only thing I managed to say.

In retrospect, it might’ve come across as a bit cynical, but the truth is I was just too damn confused to think straight. I was thrown into this situation out of blue, I wasn’t given any time to think. Not that I wasn’t desperately trying to do so.

“Can’t you, uh, just run?” I gave a hasty suggestion.

“N-No, I can’t,” she shook her head.

To get her point across, she raised her knee. As she did that, she winced a bit. Ah, shit, there was some road rash on her knee, covered by a big band-aid. Right, now that I think about it, she was kinda limping when she walked. In an instant I was overcome by a small feeling of guilt.

And then they appeared, around that same corner.

Three guys, probably in their early twenties, completely shitfaced. They were dressed in loose office clothing, and one of them was carrying an open bottle of sake, taking a sip from time to time. Slowly wobbling towards us, they were sputtering some drunken shit to each other, giggling loudly. However, there was one sentence I managed to catch.

“Let’s get her.”

In an instant my vision blurred. I clenched my fists as the adrenaline kicked in. I walked a couple of steps past the girl, shielding her behind my back. I took a second to breathe and focus. Let’s see what we’re dealing with… Yeah, young, average office workers. None of them look too threatening, and they’re drunk as fuck, but still, there’s three of them. That sake bottle might pose the biggest danger, so I need to look out for it, in case they realize to swing it at me. I just hope this won’t turn too ugly.

I had only one instruction to the girl behind me: “Stay back.”

I didn’t get an answer, but I could still hear the girl slowly taking a step back.

…Now that I think about it, I wasn’t even sure why I was trying to play the hero, since this really was none of my business. Maybe I was trying to impress this unfamiliar girl I met just a second ago, or maybe I was just looking for an excuse to fight. Or, maybe even I couldn’t turn a blind eye to something like this. Well, whatever the case, I had already made my decision, and was ready to throw hands.

Hiding my trembling fists into my hoodie’s pockets, I stood there waiting, as the trio came closer and closer to us. When they were only a few meters away, one of them happened to make eye contact with me. That’s when I decided to act.

“Piss off.”

They halted, turning to look at me. I was just about to pull out my fist, until I noticed how… confused they were.

The trio kept glancing at me and each other for a moment, until one of them asked: “Uh… Wha?”

Playing innocent, huh? Ain’t gonna work with me, buddy.

“I told you to piss off,” I snarled at them, a bit louder than the last time.

Again exchanging glances with each other, another one stepped forward: “Are we, uh, bothering ya or sumthin?”

Oh, the nerve of this fucker… “Me? No.”

I pointed at the girl behind me with my thumb. “But her? Yeah.”

The trio took a look at the fearful girl, quietly standing behind my back. And, to my surprise, they got even more confused.

“Uh… Her?” one of them asked as he tried to keep his balance.

“Oh, cut the bullshit,” I muttered, frowning. “Stalking a young girl late at night? Seriously?”

Hearing this, one of the guys quickly started trashing his hands around in a haste. “Woah, st-stalking? Man, ya got it all whrong, we—”

“You what, exactly? I heard you talking about ‘getting her’, damn it!” I snapped, slowly revealing my fist.

Hell, I was getting sick of this. Better smack one of them, maybe that’ll get my message across, and they’ll finally—

“A-A deal!”

The guy’s sudden, strange outburst bemused me so much I had to stop for a second. “…A what now?

“T-That’s right, a deal!” another guy swore, an audible panic in his voice. “We whus talking ‘bout a deal!”

Oooh, right, a deal! It all suddenly makes sense… not. “What deal?”

“Tha deal our chompany’s gonna make next week!” the guy elaborated. “We-we’re calling it ‘she’. It’sh gonna be our biggust achievement yet, that’s why we’re chelebrating.”

“…No shit?” I muttered, slowly relaxing my fist.

One of the guys shook his head, waving his hands. “Nah, no shits, we swear! We were at a bar and were about to head over to my place, it’sh just around the corner. We-we didn’t mean to scare the lil lady, honest!”

…Huh. Seeing how drunk they are, they might actually be telling the truth.

The guy leaned to the side a bit to get a look at the girl behind me. “H-Hey, lil lady, shorry if we scared ya, i-it was just a coincidence we had the same route.”

The girl behind me twitched a bit in surprise. “Oh, um… I-If you say so.”

The guy scratched his neck, chuckling nervously. Meanwhile, another guy pointed forward with his finger.

“So, uh, we’ll just kheep going, then,” he said, glancing at me as if waiting for an answer.

Looking at them for a few seconds, I finally sighed, crossing my arms. “Yeah, get out of here.”

With that, the trio began moving, making sure to keep a good amount of distance to us. The girl and I watched as they tottered down the street, though not chattering and giggling as much as before, glancing over their shoulders once in a while. After a moment, I relaxed my arms, glancing up towards the dark night sky.

“That’s that, then…” I muttered, mostly to myself, though it was also directed at the girl.

Speaking of the girl, I decided to check how she was holding up. She was still looking at the trio as they slowly disappeared from our view, quiet all the while. Confusion was visible on her face.

“Hey,” I called out for her. “You okay?”

“Eh? Oh, um, yes,” she said, turning to look at me, and chuckling embarrassedly. “I’m just a bit shaken up.”

Yeah, I guess I get what she means. Group of drunk dudes tailing you late at night, and you not being able to run… Good thing it was only a misunderstanding. Or maybe those guys were just straight up lying. Ugh, whatever. It doesn’t matter much anymore.

“Okay, cool,” I nodded.

Something just clicked in my head. A stupid thought… Ah, what the hell, I might as well go for it.

“Hey, um… Can you get home by yourself?” I asked her after a bit of hesitation.

My question taking her by surprise, she was quiet for a second. “Oh, yes. Thank you for asking.” She then broke into a faint smile.

“I actually live on this street,” she explained, pointing her finger up the road.

I, however, quickly noticed something: “Hold on, didn’t you just come from that direction?”

“Eh?” she uttered quietly, taking a closer look at her surroundings. She then ended up chuckling out of embarrassment. “Ah, I guess I did… I must’ve lost my composure, and took a wrong turn.”

Must’ve been one hell of a scare to lose one’s sense of direction like that, huh. Well, no need to go escorting maidens to their homes. A stupid idea, anyway… Wait, now that I think about it, she was pointing east, wasn’t she?

“…Guess we have the same direction, if you’re heading that way,” I noted.

“Oh, is that so? Do you live around here?” the girl asked.

I shook my head. “Nah. I’m not even sure where ‘here’ is… But if I keep heading east, I think I’ll find my way home.”

The girl seemed thoughtful. “Um, are you lost?”

“Eh, kinda,” I shrugged. “I had some business in the western part of town, and happened to take a shortcut through this neighborhood.”

“Oh, I see…” the girl muttered, thinking for a second. “If you follow this street, you’ll get to the main road. And then, when you cross the river, you’ll find a train station. Does that help?”

Station? Wait, if it’s the shopping district’s station, then there’s no problem, since I actually know that area. Why not just take the train? Because I don’t want to unless I really need to. And I still got both of my legs, so there’s no need.

“…A lot, actually,” I said, glancing at the girl, and nodding. “Thanks.”

She gave me a smile for an answer. I tried my best to give something similar back, though I’m sure I only managed to come up with a half-assed grin.

Without further ado, we headed off. The girl hurried next to me, which surprised me a bit. Well, maybe she felt safer by walking with someone, so I let her do her thing. I tried my best to ignore her limping as we walked. I guess it was kinda awkward to walk side by side in complete silence, but then again, we were complete strangers, so there wasn’t really anything to talk about. Though, I still felt like asking something from her. Like, why the hell is she out shopping so late? Taking a quick look at the grocery bag she’s carrying, it doesn’t seem to contain snacks. Did her parents make her fetch groceries, this late at night? Do I even dare to ask? It’s none of my business anyway, but still…

Raising my gaze from the grocery bag, I was met with the girl’s puzzled face. Ah, shit, she saw me peering at the bag.

The girl, however, smiled a bit as she explained: “It’s for curry.”

“…Curry?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

She nodded. “Yes. There was a sale for curry ingredients today, but I heard about it only half an hour ago, so I had to hurry to the store before they closed.”

…Wait, seriously? So, no abusive parents or anything? Man, I should stop being so pessimistic about everything.

“Ah, I see,” I muttered.

That’s that conversation over, then. With nothing else to talk about, we kept on walking in silence. I occupied myself by looking at the surrounding scenery. Yeah, nothing too special about this neighborhood, but nothing bad either. Just an average place. Though… that three-story house looks kinda weird. Tall, but thin. Whoever built it didn’t want any cubic meter of land to go to waste, that’s for sure.

“Ah, here it is,” the girl next to me said all of a sudden. “My home.”

Stopping, I turned to look at the girl, and found her facing the… the house I was just wondering about. Huh. Well, I was ready to leave her there and move on, but to my surprise, the girl turned to look at me, having something to say.

“And, well, thank you,” she said, giving me a nod of gratitude.

I’m not sure if it was the unexpectedness of it or what, but something in that got me a tad embarrassed, which I was quick to hide by turning my head away. “Eh, I didn’t really do anything, but sure.”

My head happened to be turned towards the house, so I managed to spot the house’s name plate, on which read Hirasawa.

“…Hirasawa, huh?” I thought aloud.

“Yes. I’m Hirasawa Ui,” the girl introduced herself.

I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, and couldn’t help but grin slightly. There’s just something about her seeming naivety and innocence that amuses me. In a good way, I mean, though I’m not sure why. You just don’t run into people like that too often. Anyhow, my business here seemed to be done, so better for me to make my leave.

“Alright then, Hirasawa Ui -san,” I said, giving her a wave of goodbye. “Take care.”

The girl – Hirasawa – answered the gesture. Turning around, I headed off eastward, trying my best to remember the directions she gave me. I didn’t manage to buy that book today, but at least I got a bit of action, though not as much as I’m used to. Maybe that’s a good thing. Anyway, better hurry up and go home. I told the guys I’d meet them at the park before midnight, and I’d like to grab a bite before that. All this walking’s got me hungry.

…Couple of months passed, and the weather started getting colder. Soon came December, the end of the year 2006 being only a few weeks away…

A cold wind struck against my face as I opened the front door. Shit, the winter’s coming early this year. Good thing I only have to take out the trash. I got the job done quickly, and just about sprinted back indoors to keep the blood flowing. Shutting the door with a slam, I sighed out of exhaustion before kicking off my shoes. Ah, that’s that, then. Now I’ll just head up to my comfortably warm room to play video games, and—

“Hey, by the way,” my brother said. “It’s your turn to take Dash for a walk.”

With a frown, I turned to look at the living room, where my brother lied on the couch lazily, watching TV. Damn buzzkill… Not that there’s anything wrong with Dash itself, it’s a very obedient dog. I just didn’t like the idea of going out in that freezing weather. And my muscles… Ugh, they’re still aching from that fight the other day. Quietly mumbling curses to myself, I headed upstairs to my room.

I crashed on top of my bed, yelling out a sigh into my pillow. I stayed like that for a while, until I rolled over to my side, inspecting my room from my sideways view. My collection of music and video games on my shelf, all the shit on my computer table, and the coffee stain on my carpet… Guess that should be washed sometime. After I felt like I had pondered on my few earthly possessions for long enough, I slowly got out of the bed, and moseyed over to the wardrobe, taking out my red hoodie. Putting it on, I thought for a moment, and dug deeper into the closet, finding my secret stash. I took my cigarettes and lighter, slipping them into my pocket. I had a lot of stuff on my mind, so I felt like this walk would end up being a long one.

Returning downstairs, I headed to the foyer, and picked the harness and the leash hanging from a wall.

“Dash! Come on, girl!” I yelled, shaking the harness a few times.

In an instant, a gray husky could be seen excitedly running to the foyer. Even though this dog is the laziest dog I’ve ever seen, and spends most of its time just lying around, it still enjoys going out for walks. Attaching the harness to Dash, I put on my winter coat and boots before stepping outside.

After we stepped off the porch, I crouched down, scratching Dash behind her ear. “What do you say, girl? You feel like going for a long walk?”

It just panted for an answer. Chuckling quietly, I stood up, and headed off with my canine companion. With no specific destination in mind, I decided to head south-east for a change. I’ve already explored every nick in this part of town.

Yeah, it sure is cold, alright, but not cold enough for there to be any snow just yet. There’s still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I need to pick my smoking spot carefully. Not that I care about what other people might think when they see a 15-year-old smoking, but I’d still prefer to be careful. Who knows, maybe some old motherfucker who has nothing better to do with their life might actually call the cops or something.

After what felt like half an hour, I decided to slow the pace a bit. Dash didn’t seem to have any complaints about the route I had chosen. Actually, it seemed to enjoy these longer walks more than the regular ones. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was, but I’m sure I can retrace my route back home. Anyway, I felt like having that cigarette now, so I set off to search for some secluded side alley.

“Arf!”

Dash’s sudden bark made me jolt in surprise. I would’ve told Dash to shut its damn mouth, if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a surprised yell following the bark.

“Ah!”

Confused, I directed my gaze at the direction of the voice. It came from ahead of us. Ah, yeah, there was another pedestrian, who seemed to have come around the corner all of a sudden. Situations like that sometimes surprise Dash, which explains the bark…

Wait.

“Oh? Why, hello again.”

The pedestrian, to my complete surprise, turned out to be a young girl. And not just any girl; a girl with a ponytail. She was that same gal who I had… Well, I’d like to say ‘saved’, but that’s not exactly the truth. In any case, it sure was an astounding occurrence. Though, now that I think about the route I took, this might just be her neighborhood. Huh.

And… What was her name again…? Hirasawa? Ah, yeah, that’s the one. Hirasawa was standing a few meters from us, still a bit startled by Dash’s bark. However, the moment she had recognized me, she had broken into a warm smile, and had waved, accompanied by that greeting. Still a bit stunned by this reunion of pure chance, it took me a second to react, and answer the greeting.

“Ah, yeah, hi.”

Hirasawa cocked her head a bit as she smiled. “Nice to see you again.”

“Yeah, sure,” I nodded, trying my best to come up with something to say. “…How’s the, uh, knee?”

Oh, real smooth, you damn moron.

It earned me a giggle from Hirasawa. “Oh, that? It healed ages ago.”

“A-Ah, right…” I muttered, scratching my ear embarrassedly.

Hirasawa turned her attention to Dash. “Ah, is this your dog?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Its name is Dash.”

She crouched down a bit, giving a small wave. “Well, hi there, Dash. Nice to meet you.”

Dash only yawned for an answer. It, however, didn’t seem to offend Hirasawa, who chuckled at the dog’s reaction.

“So, you two are out for a walk?” Hirasawa asked.

“Right,” I nodded.

Eh, this conversation’s getting kinda forced and dull. It’s only the second time we’ve met, after all. I don’t feel like wasting any more of her time. I’m sure she has somewhere better to be. I mean, why else would she be outside in this weather? I nudged the leash to inform Dash that it was time to go.

“But yeah, we’ll keep heading home now.”

“Oh? Okay,” Hirasawa said.

Turning around, Dash and I headed off. I kinda lied: Yeah, we’re heading home, but not before I stop for that cigarette. Hopefully I’ll find that side alley on the way…

“Um, hey?”

Halting as I heard the girl’s voice, I turned to look behind me, finding her still standing there.

“Feel free to stop for a visit if you ever find yourself around here,” she said to me, cocking her head with a slight smile.

“Uh, sure, I’ll keep that in mind,” I muttered over my shoulder.

Seemingly glad due to my answer, Hirasawa then gave me a quick wave of goodbye, before crossing the street and heading off. I kept looking at her for a short moment, before resuming my own walking.

Well, that was… something, I guess. I’m not entirely sure what to feel about that. Sure, a young man’s mind could come up with lots of unmature inferences, but I’ve always tried my best to keep that side of me in control. Maybe she’s just a kind and welcoming person, that’s all. Or, well, innocent and naïve. Eh, maybe I’ll take her up on her offer someday, who knows. Anyway, about that cigarette…

 

Chapter Text

“God fucking damn it!” a yell echoed from the kitchen on a chilly winter noon.

I got up from the couch and took a peek into the kitchen, where I saw my big brother holding his finger under a running faucet.

“Fucking coffee, why the hell it has to be so hot?” he mumbled to himself.

I chuckled and grabbed a coffee mug from a kitchen cabinet. “You could always have ice coffee instead. Oh wait, you hated that shit.”

“You and your damn coffee,” my brother retorted.

I poured myself some coffee and carried it over to the living room’s kotatsu. I sat down on the floor, sliding my feet under the blanket, and peered out of the half frosted window. I took a sip of coffee and took my phone out of my pocket, checking my messages.

“Sorry, I can’t right now…”

“Unfortunately…”

Figures. My friends had better things to do during the winter holidays. With a sigh, I closed the phone’s lid and took another sip from my coffee. My brother finally managed to cool his finger and joined me at the kotatsu with his own steaming mug. We heard someone coming down the stairs. It was our little sister, who headed straight to the kitchen, and a while later came back with a cup of hot chocolate, joining us. We just sat there, each drinking their own steamy drinks, thinking about their own things. Mom was still at work, and dad was taking a nap, so I guess we were the only ones up and about.

After a short while I took the mug to my lips, only to find it empty. I reluctantly stood up and took the empty mug to the kitchen sink. I leaned against the fridge, looking at the ceiling. What to do, where to go… Eh, guess I should go for a walk, maybe I’ll figure something out. I moved to the foyer where I dressed in my winter attire.

“I’m going out for a while,” I said towards the living room and opened the front door.

“Okay,” my sister answered, and my brother murmured something unintelligible.

I was treading along the road, the shallow snow crumbling under my feet. It was pretty chilly, but the amount of snow made up for it. I scooped a handful of snow from top of a stone fence, patted it into a snowball, and threw it to a ditch across the street, after which I continued on my journey. I happened to pass by one of my friend’s house and noticed that the lights were off, and the car was nowhere to be seen. Guess they really had something better to do, somewhere more interesting to be. I breathed in the cold air and exhaled it in the form of a sigh. Nowhere to go, no one to visit…

…visit?

I got some kind of an idea, so I started walking.

After approximately half an hour of walking, I started thinking about my idea more carefully. Maybe it’s not such a good plan after all. Maybe I should just head back home and play some games to pass the time…

“Oh, hey,” I heard a familiar voice.

Taken aback for a bit, I turned to face the direction of the voice. It was Hirasawa, Hirasawa Ui. I noticed I was standing in front of the Hirasawa residence, and she was out to grab the mail. Man, I got to stop thinking about things and just concentrate more on my surroundings.

“Nice to see you again,” she said.

“Huh? Uh, yeah, sure,” I answered a bit dazed.

A chilling breeze rushed past us, causing her to tighten the neck of her blouse.

She looked at the house behind her, and then back to me. “Do you want to come inside?”

I was processing her question, still a bit dazed, when another breeze blew past me.

“Uh, well, you see… Yeah, sure, I guess,” I managed to stutter.

Well, this wasn’t going how I thought it would go at all. Is it really acceptable to step into acquaintances house after exchanging just a few words? Well, it would’ve been rude to decline right after accepting the invite, so I decided to step on the yard tiling and followed the girl to the front door. After kicking the snow off my boots, I stepped inside.

The house’s foyer was surprisingly clean, at least cleaner than ours. The atmosphere felt surprisingly warm. I saw a set of stairs leading up, and next to it a hallway leading into some kind of a study room. I surveyed my surroundings for a couple of seconds, until I realized to take off my boots.

As I was taking off my coat, Hirasawa reached out her hand. “You can give it to me.”

I handed it over to her, and she took it somewhere around the corner.

“Would you like some slippers?” she asked me.

“Uh, sure,” I answered. Slippers? Oh wow, this place is way above my usual living standards.

She laid a pair of white slippers on the floor, which I put on. They seemed to fit just fine. Hirasawa motioned me to follow her and started walking up the stairs with me right behind her. The upstairs consisted of a combination of both living- and dining area. The kitchen was a little further back. There was a comfy looking green corner sofa in the living area with a coffee table in front of it, and a small TV right across from it.

She pointed at the sofa; “Sit down and make yourself at home, I’ll prepare some tea.”

I just nodded in agreement. I walked to the sofa and took a seat, as Hirasawa headed to the kitchen. The place felt welcoming and safe. I leaned back and glanced up towards the ceiling. So, I had stepped into the house of a girl I barely knew. I didn’t spot a car on the driveway, so I guess her parents aren’t home. Actually, I didn’t know a single thing about her family. I only knew their name, Hirasawa. That’s pretty much it. In my opinion the friendship between two people should be a lot higher before stepping inside another person’s house. But you could hardly call us friends. After all, this is the third time we meet, and it’s been almost a month since the last time. This sure is quite a weird scenario.

I began humming quietly as I kept looking upwards. Indeed, none of my current friends were this hospitable back when we were nothing but school mates. I lowered my gaze towards the kitchen doorway. Maybe that girl had a good upbringing, or something. I don’t know. I don’t know a damn thing, except that her name is Hirasawa Ui, and that she lives in a well-managed house, in a nice neighborhood. I leaned on the armrest, focusing on my thoughts.

My thinking was interrupted by Hirasawa, who emerged from the kitchen with a serving tray in her hands. I fixed my posture as she set the tray down on the coffee table and sat on the floor across the table. As I took a better look at it, I saw a plateful of small sandwiches, a cup of sugar cubes, and three teacups full of tea. Everything in fine looking dishes. Hold on… Three? Three teacups? Is she going to drink two? Am I going to drink two? Are we going to share the third one? Wait, is there someone else in the house?

“Ui, you there? What’s taking so long?” I heard a shout coming from upstairs.

The voice belonged to a girl, maybe the same age as Hirasawa. I tried my best to control my cold sweat and calm my breathing.

“Yes, I’m here. Come and have some tea!” Hirasawa shouted back.

I folded my arms while looking at my own reflection on the TV’s screen. I wonder what’s going to happen. I heard footsteps coming from upstairs, and soon I heard someone walking down the stairs. A girl emerged from the stairway. Her brown hair was tied back into two small… buns, I guess?

“Hey, Ui, wha—," she was about to say, but stopped as soon as her eyes reached me. A small blush gathered on her cheeks. As I was having a staring contest with this rather confused girl, an awkward silence fell in Hirasawa’s living room.

Hirasawa, however, didn’t seem to care about the intense atmosphere; “Jun-chan, I prepared some snacks.”

She handed a teacup over to me. This helped me come back to my senses. I shook my head to sober myself up and took the teacup, still a bit confused. The tea was light green and smelled pleasant. I’m more of a coffee person, but I still won’t refuse tea if it’s offered to me. The unfamiliar girl also seemed to come back to her senses, and walked over to the coffee table, taking a seat in front of it. I didn’t want to be an outcast, so I slid down from the sofa and sat in front of the table.

Hiding my embarrassment, I took a sip of tea, which tasted surprisingly good. The strange girl did the same, and, again, a silence fell over the room.

After a few seconds, the girl talked: “Who—?”

Hirasawa, however, knew what she was about to say, and answered quickly: “He’s an acquaintance of mine. I saw him outside and invited him inside. He’s, uh…”

She just fell silent, a blush of embarrassment emerging on her face. Ah, of course she would be embarrassed. I’ve never told her my name. I’m at her home, and she doesn’t know my name. She knows my dog’s name, but not mine. She doesn’t know anything else about me. I glanced at Hirasawa, who was muttering something to herself. Eh, guess I should fix the situation.

“Sugimoto,” I said as casually as I could. “I’m Sugimoto Eiji, I’m from the north-east part of town.”

Hirasawa seemed to finally calm down, a slight smile appearing on her face once again. “Yeah, he’s Sugimoto-san. We met a few months ago.”

Few months ago? Bah, more like half a year ago. I restrained myself from saying the former out loud, and just nodded.

Hirasawa reached her hand towards the strange girl. “Ah, Sugimoto-san. This is my friend, Suzuki Jun.”

“Hey,” I greeted, nodding to Suzuki.

She answered my greeting with a quick wave of a hand. “Yeah, hi.”

Well, this was awkward… Regardless, knowing her name managed to calm me down somehow. I picked the best looking sandwich from the tray and took a bite out of it. We spent the teatime in a complete silence. No one said a word. Everyone was just sipping their teas and munching on sandwiches.

Hirasawa was sitting right across me. She didn’t really touch the sandwiches and instead was just watching over her guests. The Suzuki girl was sitting on my left, still looking a bit timid. I finished my tea and examined the living room a bit more closely. I saw a wall shelf to my left. On top of it was some plotted plants and a few framed photos. As I eyed one of the photos more closely, I saw Hirasawa, two people who most likely were her parents, and someone who looked a lot like Hirasawa.

“Huh, you got a sister…?” I accidentally asked out loud.

Before I could ask anything else, Hirasawa stood up and walked to the shelf.

She picked up the photo. “Yes, a big sister. She’s having a sleepover at her friend’s house.” She turned to face us with a smile. “That’s why I’m having some friends over myself, so I wouldn’t feel so lonely.” That… sounded a bit sad.

“What about you? Do you have any siblings?” she asked me.

“Uh, yeah. A big brother, who goes to high school, and a little sister, who’s a year younger than me,” I explained, gazing at the ceiling.

She nodded in agreement and put the photo back on the shelf. We both learned something new about each other. It helped me relax a bit and made the atmosphere a bit less awkward. I leaned against the sofa, holding my hands on my lap, and kept staring at the ceiling line.

“Sugimoto-san, are you feeling bored?” I heard Hirasawa asking me.

I lowered my head to get a look at her. “Yeah, that’s why I went for a walk in the first place and came here.” I hastily fixed my posture. “I mean, no offense intended. I’ve been enjoying myself here.”

“That’s nice to hear,” she said, and cocked her head with a warm smile on her face.

The gesture made me blush for some reason. However, I quickly noticed Suzuki and her smug grin. What the hell is she thinking about?

“What’s up with the smile?” I asked her with an unamused expression.

“Oh, nothing,” she answered, wiping the grin off her face.

I kept staring at her for a few seconds, until I returned to staring at the ceiling. It, however, didn’t provide much entertainment, so I lowered my gaze towards the balcony’s sliding glass door, watching the clouded sky behind it.

“So, do you have any plans for the rest of the day?” Hirasawa presented me with a new question.

I kept my eyes on the glass door. “Nah, not really. It’s holiday, after all. Besides, all my friends are out of town.”

“Um, would you like to stay over for the night?” she asked.

I threw my self forward out of shock, almost banging my head against the table. I looked at Hirasawa, who was just sitting there with a shy smile.

“I mean, if it’s okay to you.”

 

Chapter Text

I was at a loss of words. I couldn’t help but just keep staring at Hirasawa, who had just invited me to spend the night here. I tried to think of something to say, but nothing came to my mind. Instead, I turned my gaze towards Suzuki to see if she again had that smug grin on her face. I was wrong. She seemed shocked, even more so than me. After a few calming breaths, she stood up and led Hirasawa to the kitchen area.

Suzuki wasn’t very good at whispering. I heard her say something about “our plan” and “unwanted extra.” I had a pretty strong suspicion about what she was talking about. Hirasawa started whispering back, but she was far better at it than Suzuki. So, instead of trying to eavesdrop on the conversation, I just leaned back against the sofa, planning my next move. However, the impossible had happened; my head was empty. I didn’t have any kinds of thoughts nor scenarios to think over.

Soon I started hearing Suzuki’s reluctant buts. Every ‘but’ was interrupted by Hirasawa’s whispering. Why the hell is she even trying to convince Suzuki into this? I understand her hesitation, I’d probably be the same if I were in her shoes. After a minute or so, the girls returned to the living room.

Suzuki kept her eyes on the floor. “I… I guess you can stay. I don’t mind.”

I took a careful glance towards Hirasawa. Whatever she just said in there, it had worked. It got me a bit scared, to be honest.

Nevertheless, it was my turn to ask questions, so I turned to face Hirasawa: “Well, uh, what about your parents?”

This was currently the number one concern on my mind, since I didn’t care to get beaten up by this girl’s father.

“Oh, my parents are currently on a work-related vacation in Europe. I don’t think they mind if a friend stays over,” she explained.

What the hell is a ‘work-related vacation’? Does such a thing even exist?

She, however, quickly realized something. “Oh, but, what about your parents?”

“Ah, well, I guess it’ll suit them,” I answered with a bit of uncertainty in my voice. I’ll just tell them that I’m staying over at my friend’s place without mentioning any names. It’ll be fine, I hope.

“I got to drop by at my house to get some stuff and so on.”

“Ah, that’s fine. We’ll be here, so take your time,” Hirasawa replied with a smile.

I felt like this was a good time to make my leave, so I got up and stretched my legs for a bit.

Hirasawa was watching my doings, until she seemed to remember something. “Oh, I almost forgot. Would you mind if we exchanged numbers? We could keep in contact if necessary.”

“Eh, sure, whatever,” I said with a shrug.

My inner self was probably pounding its head against a wall as I was typing the girl’s number on my keypad. Hirasawa accompanied me downstairs, where she handed me my coat back.

As I got by boots back on, she said: “Try to get back before dark, so we’d have more time for activities.”

I just nodded for an answer, waved a hand for goodbye and stepped outside. I took a left turn when I reached the street, and once again sank into my thoughts as I walked back home.

As I was on the first step of my house’s porch, I realized something: not at any point had I outright agreed to staying over at her place. But I guess it was too late to change my mind, since they were waiting for me to return. Well, it’s my own fault, so I’ll suffer the consequences. I let out a sight, kicked the snow off my boots and stepped inside. First one to greet me was Dash. And by greet, I mean it gave me a light bark without moving anywhere from her bed. What a lazy piece of work. As I stepped out of the foyer, my little sister peeked from the kitchen, wearing an apron.

“Ah, you’re back. The dinner’s ready in ten minutes or so,” she said and got back to cooking.

Ah, of course. The car wasn’t in the driveway, so my parents are probably out somewhere. That’s why my sister is preparing the dinner. She’s a good cook though, so I don’t mind. I walked the stairs up and headed to my room.

I grabbed my backpack off the floor and emptied it from its contents. I started stuffing it with different things that I might need; spare clothes, a phone charger, a toothbrush and the brand-new third volume of Warriors of Lotus. That should be everything. But I guess I should eat before heading out. Dinner wasn’t ready yet, so I threw the bag on my bed and decided to kill some time by browsing the internet.

After a few moments of reading through my favorite message board, I heard my sister calling: “Dinner’s ready!”

I turned 90 degrees on my computer chair, got up and left the room. As I was walking towards the stairs, I stopped by my brother’s door and pounded on it with my fist.

“Hey, you lazy shit! Come get some grub!” That should wake him up, assuming he is taking a nap in the first place.

The dining area is located at the corner between the living room and the kitchen. I walked through the kitchen to grab myself a plateful of food, which I carried over to the dining table. Teriyaki chicken, splendid! My sister took her apron off and brought some chicken over to Dash. During this I saw my brother lazily walking the stairs down, yawning all the way. Guess he was taking a nap after all. After joining us at the table we all dug in.

“Um, I’m staying over at my friend’s place tonight,” I explained, trying my best to hide my insecurity.

My brother raised his eyebrow. “Oh. At Tadaaki’s? Or Ichiro’s?” He knew that those two were my best friends.

I shook my head. “Nah, at someone else’s.”

My brother murmured something approving and got back to eating. After no more questions popped out, I let out a silent sigh of relief and started stuffing my face.

After finishing our meals, my sister stayed in the kitchen to clean up, while my brother and I headed upstairs, each to their own rooms. So far so good; I didn’t have to explain to my brother about how I’m going to spend the night with two teenage girls. The thought, however, was enough to make me want to scream, so I threw myself on my bed and yelled a sigh into my pillow.

I raised my head and looked out of the window. The sun was starting to set, so I guess it was time to go. From words to deeds, I threw the bag on my back and headed downstairs to the foyer. After getting my winter attire on, I opened the front door.

“I’m off, see you tomorrow.”

My sister waved me goodbye from the kitchen, and my brother murmured something unintelligible from upstairs. I headed out.

I stopped in front of the Hirasawa residence for a moment to scope the place out. The closer I got to the front door, the more uncertain I became. I halted in front of the door to kick the snow off my boots and raised my finger towards the doorbell.

But it didn’t press it.

Instead, it was just hanging loose right next to it.

What the hell am I even doing? I still have the change to go back home and never answer her calls, never return here. I’ll stay at the north-east part of town, I’ll live there, I’ll die there. But… what if not. My whole life I’ve been nothing but an asshole. In my school, I’m known as a violent delinquent. I didn’t really enjoy that reputation, although due to it most people didn’t dare to mess with me.

What if I step through this door? What if Hirasawa becomes my friend alongside Tadaaki and Ichiro? What if some bitch from my class happens to pass by and tell Hirasawa about what kind of a person I am? What if I fuck something up myself, making all of her friends and family hate me? What if I make her cry for reason or another? What if I get angry at her, and… and…?

My thinking was interrupted when the door opened. It was Hirasawa.

“Oh, you’re here. I knew I saw you through the kitchen window,” she said with a smile.

I didn’t dare to open my mouth, since I’d probably blurt one of my stupid thoughts out, so I just nodded and stepped inside. I gave her my coat, took off my boots, slipped my feet into the slippers I had left next to the wall and headed upstairs. Suzuki was sitting on the corner of the sofa, reading some manga.

“Yo,” I greeted her, setting my backpack down next to the sofa’s armrest.

She answered my greeting with a wave and continued on reading. Must be a damn good manga, huh… At that point I noticed the coffee table, which was full of all kinds of foods and goodies. I was so surprised I almost took a step backwards. How the hell did Hirasawa manage to prepare all that? Did Suzuki help? I glanced at the girl, who was just lazily reading her manga. I doubt it. Hirasawa saw me eyeing the table.

“Ah, the dinner’s almost ready. I’ve still got a few things to prepare, so please wait for a moment,” she explained, and headed to the kitchen. So that’s not all? Man…

I took a seat on the sofa and peered out of the balcony door, watching the orange sky. So, I chose this. Instead of returning home, cutting ties with her, and never setting a foot in here, I stepped inside and took the risk of Hirasawa knowing about me. About what kind of a person I really am, about the fact that I beat up anyone who dares to fuck with me.

Blah, I got to get rid of these kinds of thoughts, I don’t want to look depressed. I reached over the armrest to grab a book from my bag. I opened it, resuming reading from where I left off. The reading helped me relax a bit, as I was focusing on the text instead of my thoughts. I leaned back and turned the page.

After reading for a few minutes or so, I felt someone breathing right next to me. I turned my head to my right, and saw Suzuki sitting right next to me, way too close. She was gazing at my book. I was trapped between her and the armrest, I couldn’t escape. A bit uncomfortable situation if you ask me.

“How can you read that much? It’s all words, not even a single illustration,” she asked me.

I glanced at the book, and back at her.

“Uh, of course there isn’t, this is just a regular novel. It’s still pretty good though, so it’s easy to read even without illustrations. It’s not even that much, it’s only…” I paused to check the page count. “…200 pages long. I’m already halfway through it.”

Suzuki kept looking at the book for a while, until she gave me an approving nod and dragged herself back to the sofa’s corner. Finally, some room to breath. I returned to my book.

Few pages later I felt my stomach growling, so I decided to put the book away and stretch my shoulders a bit. I didn’t eat that much at home, since I had a feeling that there’d be more food waiting for me here.

“All done,” I heard Hirasawa announcing.

At some point she had appeared next to the table. I glanced at the coffee table and noticed a few new additions. As if there wasn’t enough food previously… Suzuki finally took her eyes from her manga, setting it down on the sofa and taking a seat at the table. I decided to follow her example, and slid down on the floor, sitting approximately at the same spot as earlier today, facing the balcony door. We thanked for the food and started eating. Suzuki seemed to have a better appetite than Hirasawa and me combined.

Some time passed, and there was nothing but empty plates on the table. It was a very palatable meal, I got to admit. Hirasawa’s good at cooking, maybe even better than my sister. I spread my legs under the table and laid down, my hands crossed on my stomach. As Hirasawa began clearing the table, Suzuki hopped back on the sofa and resumed reading her manga. I placed my arm on my forehead as I watched Hirasawa washing the dishes, but soon felt a vibration in my pocket and heard a familiar message tone. I took my phone out of the pocket and checked the small screen on the lid; Tadaaki had sent me a text message.

Nishikawa Tadaaki, 15 years old. He’s been my best friend since kindergarten. I’ve spent the funniest moments of my short life with him, and he has always been there when I’ve needed him, whether it was a videogame or a situation where someone was strangling me from behind. I opened the lid and started messaging:

Tadaaki: Yo, what’s up in the south? I think I saw some shooting stars last night.

Me: I’m doing good, so far no one has died. How’s Hokkaido? Your balls freezing yet?

Tadaaki: Nah, but there’s a shitload of snow here, much more than back home.

Me: Make a big ass snowman and kill it with a shovel.

Tadaaki: Guess I have to. Any luck with the ladies?

The question got me thinking: how will I explain my current situation to him? I glanced at a reading Suzuki and listened to Hirasawa washing the dishes. I let out a quiet sigh and returned to texting:

Me: Same old same old.

Tadaaki: I suppose we are even, then. How’s Ichiro?

Me: On a trip, just like you.

Tadaaki: So you’re alone?

Me: Yeah, but I’ll manage.

Tadaaki: Awesome. I’ll go build that snowman now, try to stay alive.

I smirked as I closed the phone’s lid and dropped it back into my pocket. I tried to imagine Tadaaki’s reaction if I told him about my current affairs. If I choose my next moves right, or wrong, he’s going to learn about this at some point. I have to prepare myself mentally for all the teasing and witty remarks he will undoubtably lay upon me. But that’s why I hanged out with him; he’s an outspoken person just like me. Most of the time we share the same opinions, and neither cared to sweeten their words. We were the dudes.

Hirasawa returned from the kitchen, seemingly done with the dishes.

“Would you two like some tea? We could also play some board game.”

I glanced over to Suzuki, who was looking back at me. Neither raised any objections, so that’s what we did for the rest of the day; drank some tea and played a board game. As I was sitting there, sipping my tea, watching Suzuki suffer with the ‘move back three steps’-tile and Hirasawa giggling at her reaction, I couldn’t help but smile to myself.

Few hours passed. I was in the middle of reading when I heard Suzuki yawn. I tried to control myself, but to no affair and also yawned. Hirasawa, who was cleaning the table, noticed this.

“Maybe it’s time we went to sleep.”

I checked my watch. Eh, it’s not that late, but I guess I’m tired from all the walking, so I didn’t object. As Hirasawa motioned us to follow her up the stairs, I grabbed my backpack and followed her alongside Suzuki. She directed us to her room, which was a bit smaller than mine, but also a lot tidier. The furniture wasn’t anything special, just a bed, a desk, a small bookshelf, and the usual wardrobe you’d find in any modern house. Only thing standing out was a futon on the floor.

Hirasawa put her hands together. “Okay, here’s the plan: Jun-chan and I will sleep in the bed, while you, Sugimoto-san, will sleep in the futon.”

Suzuki and I glanced at each other, neither raising any objections. Now that I think about it, I could’ve just slept in the living room. On the other hand, she didn’t know me that well, so maybe she wanted to keep me close by just to be safe. But if that’s the case, why invite me over in the first place? Blah, whatever, guess I’ll just go through with this.

“Alright then. Let’s change into pajamas,” Hirasawa declared and walked over to her closet.

I almost chocked on my own spit. “Pajamas, right… Uh, you see, the thing is…”

“You… you don’t have your pajamas with you?” Hirasawa asked, a flush forming on her cheeks.

I kept gazing around the room nervously. “Yeah, I… I don’t even own any.”

“Well, this is a… rather difficult situation. I’d borrow you some, but you’re not…”

“I’m not a girl, yeah, I know,” I completed her sentence.

I kept staring at the floor for a moment, until I turned back to Hirasawa with newly found confidence. “Guess I’ll have to sleep with my clothes on. Don’t worry, I won’t mind.”

It took a few seconds before Hirasawa was completely assured and nodded in agreement. I actually handled this situation pretty well. Who would’ve known?

Suzuki walked over to Hirasawa, turned to face me, and pointed at the door. “Excuse me, would you mind?”

“Ah, of course, sorry,” I said as I walked out of the room and close the door. The upstairs hallway was almost completely dark, save for the moonlight cast by a small window. I sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. When I got the “all clear” signal, I stood up and once again stepped into the room.

Both of the girls were in pajamas and had removed their hair ornaments. Suzuki was already between the sheets, but Hirasawa was still standing there. I threw my bag on the floor along with my hoodie, after which I removed my wristwatch, belt, and socks. Maybe I should take my jeans off once I’m in the futon? Bad idea, I’d most likely forget about it and just walk around half-naked. I noticed Hirasawa looking at Suzuki, who was already sound asleep.

“Guess we should also turn in for the night,” she whispered to me. I nodded and slipped inside the futon.

Hirasawa turned the lights off and got in her bed. I was just laying there, staring at the dark ceiling. I think I should feel anxious, maybe a bit excited. However, I didn’t feel a thing. Maybe I’m just too tired. I rolled over to my side and, after a while, drifted off.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really remember their dreams that well. This, however, was different. I was in the middle of space, or something resembling it. All around me were white dots painted on a black canvas. I also heard some sort of low humming. This lasted for a while, until the humming suddenly got louder. Simultaneously, a green light orb appeared before me, blinding my eyes with its bright glow. The louder the humming got, the brighter the light orb became. That’s when I woke up.

I was staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. A bit alarmed, I surveyed my surroundings, finally remembering where I was. With a tired sigh I laid back on the futon, glancing at the watch I had placed on the floor. It was already morning, if a bit early. I let out a tired sigh, placing my arm on my forehead. I could hear the two girls sleeping in the bed next to me. I don’t think I’ll be able to get back to sleep, so my only option was just to wait.

Sometime later Hirasawa suddenly sat up, making me flinch. She was just staring at me, probably still half-asleep.

After a bit of staring, she finally seemed to recognize me. “…oh, you’re also here. Good morning.” She yawned and started stretching her back.

I kept watching her from the corner of my eye. So, this was the first time I’ve slept in a girl’s room. Better not to think too much about it. I also sat up, stroking my hair. Hirasawa’s stretching caused Suzuki to woke up, who quickly sat up, causing me to flinch the second time.

She kept staring at me for a while, after which she yawned. “Oh, I forgot you’re also here. Morning.” And I thought I had a bad memory…

After dressing up and brushing my teeth, I headed downstairs to the living room. I glanced over to the kitchen, where Hirasawa was preparing some breakfast. Suzuki was laying on the sofa, seemingly still tired. I sat down at the coffee table and watched how the sky was turning bright blue over time. I was more relaxed than yesterday, since I felt like I’ve gotten to know these two better. To be honest I didn’t mind making new friends, as long as they’re nice. These two have turned out to be just that.

For breakfast we had some toast and orange juice. Nothing too fancy, but I didn’t complain. Everything tastes better when it’s made by someone else, after all. We finished our meals quickly. Hirasawa started washing the dishes, while Suzuki and I returned to reading our books.

A sound downstairs made me take my eyes off the book. Soon after I heard a voice.

“I’m home!”

My heart skipped a beat. “I’m home”? Who the hell is that? Wait… it couldn’t be her sister, could it?

I heard someone walking the stairs up. Cold sweat poured down my brow, I breathed heavily. I didn’t dare to look behind me, so I just kept staring at the room’s reflection on the TV screen.  The steps got closer and closer. I watched from the reflection as someone appeared from the stairs. I just kept my eyes on the TV, hoping that she wouldn’t notice me. She started walking towards the kitchen, and suddenly stopped for a moment.

“Oh, hi, Jun-chan!”

And then, she just walked past me and continued on walking… for a total of one second.

She suddenly came to a halt, not moving an inch.  I turned my gaze to her as she slowly turned to face me. She was staring at me, her confused eyes wide open. She didn’t even blink. Neither did I, as a matter of fact. There was just the awkward silence. From the corner of my eye, I saw Suzuki setting her manga down, seemingly finding this whole situation entertaining.

I was getting kind of desperate, when suddenly Hirasawa appeared from the kitchen. “Ah, sis! Welcome back! Did you like your sleepover with Nodoka?”

This ‘sis’ slowly turned to face Hirasawa and pointed her shaking finger at me. “W-who is t-that p-person…?”

Hirasawa didn’t seem to notice her sister’s gesture. “Oh, he’s Sugimoto-san, he’s a friend of mine. He stayed here over last night.” You don’t care a damn thing about being subtle, do you, gal!?

“Ooooooh…” the girl let out an approving sound, slowly backing away towards the stairs, still keeping her eyes on me. She soon disappeared upstairs, but I could still hear her sneaking upstairs, all the way to what I presumed was her room. The tense situation was over, for now.

“So, uh, that was your sister?” I asked Hirasawa, still trying to recover from what just happened.

She nodded. “Indeed. Her name is Yui.”

I heard some snickering from my right, so I turned to Suzuki, who had an amused grin on her face.

“Yup, that’s Yui, alright. She reacted the same way the first time I visited this house.”

Alright, so this ‘Yui’ was supposedly a bit more distinctive than other people. At least she wasn’t dangerous, although you’d never know.

“That so…?” I muttered under my breath, trying to return to my book. Hirasawa, however, interrupted me.

“Sugimoto-san, have you enjoyed yourself here so far?”

I raised my gaze from the book. “Uh, well… yeah, sure, I have,” I stuttered, nodding just in case she didn’t understand my speech. She seemed glad and sat on the sofa between Suzuki and me.

I glanced over at the duo. Hirasawa has been the kindest non-relative person I’ve ever met. She’s really considerate and hospitable. She took me under her roof even though she didn’t know my name yet. Suzuki, also, agreed to sleep in the same room with a guy she met just a moment ago. These two were really something else. Whatever happens, I hope they’ll never learn about what kind of a person I really am.

A few hours passed, and it was time for me to head home. Hirasawa escorted me to the foyer, where I thanked her for the hospitability and said my goodbyes. As I was walking along the road, I couldn’t help but notice how fresh the air felt. I grabbed my phone, examining the freshly added phone number in my contact list. Guess I have a new friend now, huh. I’ve already met both her friend and sister and slept at her house. Well, that was quick. For example, it took some years before Tadaaki invited me for a sleepover.

I kept in contact with Hirasawa through text messages, since I didn’t really feel like visiting her. The messages started out as one-sentence long greetings, but soon evolved into outright conversations. I wasn’t even sure why I was texting with her, I just felt like doing it.

Before I knew it, the winter holidays were over, and we’d have to go back to school. I only realized the day before the school would resume and pounded my head against my pillow out of frustration.

 

Chapter Text

I woke up to a beeping sound. It was the most annoying beeping of them all: an alarm clock. It kept getting louder and louder, as I was laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. I slowly sat up, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. As I was stretching, the beeping just went on. I started to get irritated.

“Shut the hell up already,” I muttered to my phone as I set the alarm off.

My morning routines were as followed: I got out of the bed, opened the curtains, got dressed in my gakuran, pretended to make my bed, and headed downstairs. As I was on the first step, I saw my sister coming out of her room, seemingly as tired as I was. My brother was watching TV in the living room, wearing his own school uniform. Judging from the inviting aroma, he had made some coffee, so I headed to the kitchen to get some. I needed it.

Our mother goes to work very early in the morning, so we have to make our own breakfast. Opening the fridge and using the toaster isn’t really rocket science, so we’ll manage. I made myself some toast and gobbled it up, at the same time glancing at the TV. As usual, it didn’t broadcast anything interesting.

Quarter of an hour passed, and it was time for my sister and I to go to school. My brother had left a bit earlier, since his high school was located a bit further away than our junior high. After getting our winter attire on, we stepped out of the house and began walking, side by side. This, however, lasted only for a few minutes, until I told my sister to go on ahead. You see, I was at the usual spot where I usually meet up with my friends.

A moment later, I saw a familiar duo approaching, both chuckling while pushing each other.

“Quit fucking around, you clowns. We’re supposed to be responsible young men!” I ordered them sarcastically.

After a bit of laughing, we began heading to the school.

Tadaaki still hadn’t gotten a new winter coat. Instead, he was wearing two hoodies on top of each other. Ichiro, on the other hand, was the only one of us who wore a beanie, probably due to his buzz cut.

Ah, yes, Makino Ichiro. We met him at the beginning of junior high. After a certain event, he began hanging out with us, and he’s been our friend ever since. Sure, he can be a bit immature at times, but I’m not one to judge.

Soon we stood in front of a three-story building. Its red coat of paint had become so faded it almost looked pink. Only three more months in this piece of shit, and we’d be free. I mean, we’d have to go high school after this, but it can’t be worse that Yukinokawa Junior High. It was pretty much the only junior high in the north-east part of the town.

As we walked towards the front doors, some students on the schoolyard turned around to glare at us. Well, that’s what you get for being an infamous group of delinquents, I guess. This had lasted for three whole years, so we’ve learned to ignore them. We pushed ourselves through the crowd and headed to our classroom.  Some of our classmates were already in the class, chatting with each other. We walked to the back of the class, where our seats were, and grouped up around Ichiro’s desk, continuing on talking about whatever came to mind.

I felt my pocket vibrate. I ignored it, but it kept going on, meaning that it wasn’t a message, but a phone call. I didn’t have a ringtone, so it always takes a while to notice if someone’s calling me. I grabbed my phone, checking the small screen on the lid: Hirasawa was calling me. This early in the morning? I looked at my friends, who didn’t seem to care about my phone, and continued on talking. Huh, guess I’ll answer it.

I pulled my chair back a bit, and answered the call: “Yeah?”

“Good morning, Sugimoto-san. Uh, I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” Hirasawa asked.

I scratched my head and glanced at the classroom’s wall clock. “Nah, not at all. So, uh, what’s up?”

“I was just wondering if you’d like to meet up with Jun-chan and I after school. We’d do something fun.”

I tried my best not to choke and kept glancing around nervously. After making sure that no one was hearing our conversation, I took a few calming breaths.

“Yeah, sure. Although, if I remember correctly, my school day ends a bit later than yours,” I answered, remembering our text messages.

Hirasawa made an approving sound. “Ah, that’s fine, we’ll wait for you. I’ll call you later. Have a nice day!”

“Yeah, bye, Hirasawa-san,” I said before ending the call.

No detailed plans, huh? Just ‘hanging out after school’? Oh well, good thing I didn’t have plans for the rest of the day. I stuffed the phone back into my pocket with a sigh. However, it was quiet. I turned to face my friends, who were just staring at me.

“The hell are you two looking at?” I asked them, unamused.

The duo glanced at each other, and Ichiro decided to ask: “Who the hell’s Hirasawa?”

I shrugged, raising an eyebrow. “What’s it to you?”

“Nah, nothing. We just thought that you were too scared to make new friends,” Tadaaki quipped with a grin.

I clicked my tongue. “Go fuck yourselves. Sheesh, not a bit of privacy around here…”

Our chat was interrupted when our homeroom teacher stepped into the class. Time to begin the first school day of the year.

Seven hours doesn’t really feel that long when you spend most of your time looking out of the window. I didn’t even get into any fights today, not even an argument. Maybe it’s for the best; I don’t want to get expelled on the last semester. After sitting through the last homeroom, we packed our stuff and left the classroom.

Ichiro stretched his back as we walked along the corridor. “Blarg! I’m sick of the homerooms!”

Tadaaki glanced at him. “Me too, man, but we can’t really slack off as much as before, if we want to get into the nearby high school.”

I just kept quiet and listened to their talking as we walked the stairs down. When we got to the shoe lockers, I noticed a few students staring out of the window towards the school’s yard. I didn’t pay them any mind, until I heard one of them talk.

“Girls from another school?”

Could it be…? No, no, it can’t be. I got my boots on, waited for my friends to do the same, and followed them out through the doors. As we walked along the pavement, I kept looking at my side, trying to stay hidden behind the duo. But why? It’s not like they’d be here or anythi—

“Ah, Sugimoto-san! Over here!”

Tadaaki and Ichiro halted, as did I. A dozen of students on the schoolyard turned to face the excited voice. After a few seconds of hesitation, I decided to do the same.

Hirasawa and Suzuki were standing in front of the school, both dressed in their school uniforms. Hirasawa was waving at me, turning the onlookers’ attention towards me. Tadaaki and Ichiro turned to look at me, both extraordinarily confused. I kept gazing around the yard nervously for a few seconds and sighed.

“Oh for the love of…” I muttered under my breath and walked past my friends towards the girls.

Hirasawa didn’t seem to notice what was going on at all. She was just standing there with a smile on her face, not a worry in the world. Suzuki, on the other hand, seemed to notice the dozens of glares directed at us. I stared Hirasawa straight into her eyes to give a sign that now would be a good moment to throw the smoke bomb and make a hasty retreat to the getaway car. It became clear that she didn’t have any telepathic skills.

“What are you two doing here?” I asked them in a low voice.

Hirasawa didn’t seem to understand the situation. “Huh? You told me that you’d be able to meet up after school, right?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t mean for you two to…” I cut my sentence short and sighed. “You know what, whatever. But, how did you even know what school I go to?”

“You told me yourself in your messages, don’t you remember?” Hirasawa answered, cocking her head confusedly.

The god damn text messages. Guess I accidentally told her some personal information in them. Ah well, this is what I get for being too careless. Suzuki leaned towards me and kept nudging her head to the side nervously. I reckoned she wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. I didn’t have anything against that idea. I took one last glance at the students behind me and started walking.

I beckoned the girls to follow me. “Well, whatever. Let’s get moving.”

As we walked through the neighborhood, I couldn’t help but think about what might happen tomorrow. That school is full of gossiping little shitheads, and since at least third of the school knew me… Ugh, what a mess. If someone dares to fuck with me over this, I’ll just beat them senseless. Hell, I’ll fight the whole damn school if I have to.

I glanced at my clothes and turned to face the girls. “Let’s stop by at my place, I’ll get changed.”

The girls nodded for an answer.

Two-story building, colored dark brown with white edges, surrounded by similar houses. That’s my home, alright. The girls followed me as I stepped on the porch and reached for the door handle. I paused for a split second to think: my parents were at work, my brother had some club activities, and my sister said she’d go to her friend’s place after school, meaning the house was empty, which suited me just fine. I opened the door and stepped inside.

I waited for the girls to get inside before closing the door. They were looking around for a bit, until their eyes caught something. It was Dash, who was curiously peeking around the corner. As she saw the two girls in the foyer, she decided to come closer to investigate. During this, I had taken off my boots and was just about to head to the stairs, when I saw Suzuki looking a bit scared.

“Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite.”

“Y-yeah, I’m just more of a cat person,” she said, laughing embarrassingly.

I snickered quietly as I reached the stairs and started heading up.

“Don’t bother taking your coats off, this won’t take long.”

As I got into my room, I threw my bag on the bed, got rid of the gakuran and threw on some jeans and the red hoodie. I checked myself from a mirror hanging on the inside of the closet door. A lot comfier.

However, as I was looking at my reflection, I became uncertain. I could just tell them to get the fuck out of here, and never come back. But why? Why was I so unsure about this? Was I scared of them finding out about my true personality? Ah, hell, I’ve already thought this trough. Maybe I could be a nice person for a change instead of a piece of shit delinquent. Just maybe…

“Ah, fuck it all…” I muttered tiredly, leaning against the closet door.

I heard a knock on the door, and Hirasawa speaking: “Sugimoto-san? Are you there?”

“Huh…? Ah, yeah, I’m here,” I answered, feeling a bit dazed.

The door opened, and both Hirasawa and Suzuki peeked inside. After checking that I had my pants on, they walked in. They both looked worried.

“Uh, are you alright?” Hirasawa asked.

I glanced at the mirror to see if there was something on my face. “Huh? Y-yeah, why?”

“It’s just that… you took kind of long, so, we decided to check on you.”

Hold on a minute, just how long was I staring at my own reflection just now? Ugh, anyway, better get moving. I don’t want to make these two worry about me, they’re too kind. I headed downstairs, and the girls followed right behind me.

As we stepped out of the house, I closed the front door and turned to face the girls.

Hirasawa put her hands together. “So, where do you want to go?”

“Hold on, you didn’t have anything planned?” Suzuki asked, confused.

They both turned to face me. I spread my arms.

“Don’t ask me!”

The girl both let out a sigh. I crossed my arms and leaned back against the porch’s railing. So, no one had any ideas, and we were here for nothing?

However, Hirasawa soon brightened up. “Let’s go to my house, then. We can have some snacks.”

Suzuki and I looked at each other, then nodded to Hirasawa, since neither of us had any better ideas. Personally, I didn’t know this town that well, even though I’ve lived here almost my whole life. It’s just that I always spend my time in this north-eastern neighborhood, only rarely venturing elsewhere. Blah, I should explore this town more often.

After half an hour of walking we reached the Hirasawa residence. I still didn’t see a car on the driveway. Hell, how many ‘work-related vacations’ does her parents take? I followed the girls inside.

“I’m home!” Hirasawa shouted.

“Welcome back!” a familiar voice answered.

Ah, that must be the big sis… big sis what-was-her-name… Yui? Yeah, Big Sis Yui. What a mouthful, I’ll just call her Yui.

As we got upstairs, I noticed two girls sitting at the coffee table, one of them being Yui. As we got closer, I saw a pair of workbooks and notebooks on the table. Guess they were doing their homework.

Yui raised her head, smilingly greeting us: “Hey, Ui! Hey, Jun-chan! Heyyyyyy, uh…”

As she got to me, her voice got lower and her smile was gone. Was she actually that scared of me?

“…Sugimoto, right?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, a bit nervous.

The smile returned to her face. “Ah, of course! Hey, Sugimoto-kun!”

So she just forgot my name for a moment… And I guess now I’m Sugimoto-kun to her. Eh, whatever makes her happy. The other girl at the table raised her eyes from her notebook and looked at me. She was wearing a pair of red glasses, which made her look like some sort of a student council member. I really wasn’t feeling like having another staring contest, so I decided to introduce myself.

“Uh, hi. I’m Sugimoto.”

The girl smiled at me, adjusting her glasses. “I’m Manabe, Manabe Nodoka.”

Her way of speaking sounded mature, maybe she’s in the student council after all? I think I’ve heard that name before… ah, Yui was having a sleepover at her place some time ago.

“Nodoka-chan, help me with this!” Yui moaned, pointing at the first math problem on the page. Looks like these two were busy. I turned back to my companions, who were waiting for me in front of the stairs, and followed them up. We headed to Hirasawa’s room.

“Wait here, I’ll make us some tea,” she said before leaving the room.

Suzuki jumped on the bed, spreading her arms, and sighed into the pillow. I sat on the edge of the bed, examining Hirasawa’s bookshelf. After a few seconds, Suzuki rolled over to her side and looked at me.

“What exactly happened at your school?” she asked.

I raised my gaze, looking straight forward. I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“Were you ashamed that we came to pick you up? Be honest,” Suzuki said.

I looked downwards, stroking my chin. “Yeah, well… I don’t think many would believe if I told them that we’re just friends.”

I turned to face Suzuki. The more she processed my words, the redder her face became.

“S-so, they think that… that we’re your…”

I cut her off: “Yeah, something like that. But it’s not a big deal, don’t worry about it.”

Not a big deal? What about all those onlookers? It seemed like a huge deal to me,” she said.

I turned my gaze upwards, falling down on the bed, my head right next to Suzuki’s feet. Since she was wearing a skirt, I decided to turn my head the other way.

“…you see, I have, uh, a reputation of some kind. At least half of my school knows about me.”

Suzuki just stayed quiet. I took her silence as a sign to continue: “So, when something like this happens, especially to the likes of me, it suddenly becomes a huge fu— freaking event. So big, that they have the right to stare and gossip about it.”

I noticed the annoyance in my voice, so I tried to calm down a bit.

“…fortunately, I’ll get out of that place soon.”

Suzuki seemed to understand what I was talking about. I wasn’t sure if it was for good or bad, but I didn’t care much at that time.

I wasn’t sure if she were about to say anything else, since at that moment Hirasawa came back, wearing an apron over her school uniform.

“Sis and Nodoka-chan are done with their homework, so now we can use the living room. Let’s eat there.”

When I got downstairs, I didn’t see the spectacle-headed girl anywhere. She must’ve headed home. Yui, though, was still sitting at the table, staring intensively at a platter of cookies in front of her. Besides the platter, the table also held a plateful of sandwiches, and cups of tea. I went to sit at my usual spot, facing the balcony door. I don’t even know why I liked that spot so much. As Hirasawa gave us the permission to dig in, Yui took her chance and grabbed a fistful of cookies from the platter, earning herself some scolds from her younger sister, and a hearty laugh from me.

Never in my life have I felt myself as accepted as now. I’ve received a warm reception at the Hirasawa residence. However, my smile soon turned into a frown, as I was thinking about the decision I had to make half a year ago: to be a good person and help someone in need, or just leave them on their own. Though, anyone would’ve helped her. Why did it have to be me? Was this some kind of a trial? Was Hirasawa actually a member of some kind of a secret group, who are testing me? God, I got to stop watching so many shitty movies.

“What’re you thinking about?” Suzuki asked me, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I was leaning against the couch, my hands behind my head. “Life, future… just the usual.”

As I glanced around, I noticed that Yui had disappeared somewhere without me noticing, but Hirasawa was still sitting at the table, right across from me. I took a sip out of my tea, which had cooled off a bit. Suzuki gobbled up the rest of her sandwich, and laid down on the floor.

“So, what do you do on your free time?” Hirasawa asked me to spark a conversation.

I actually had to think about my answer for a few seconds.

“I hang out with my friends, play some videogames, go out for walks… so, nothing special, really.”

This didn’t seem to be enough for her; “Well, do you have any hobbies? For example, do you play any instrument?”

“Uh, actually, yes. I play acoustic guitar every now and then. At school, I mean. I don’t own one myself.”

Indeed, at the beginning of junior high, I started practicing the guitar just for fun. I know the basics, but not much else, since it’s not a constant hobby or anything.

Hirasawa gave me an approving nod, and the snack time continued on.

Half an hour later it was time for me to head home. Hirasawa escorted me to foyer, where I got my winter attire on. As I was reaching for the door handle, I heard her speaking.

“Sugimoto-san?”

I turned around to look at her, and was met with a warm smile.

“Come visit us anytime you want.”

I got a bit embarrassed for a moment, but soon shaped up. I nodded with a smile.

“Sure.”

 

Chapter Text

Before I knew it, winter was over. The snow melt, weather got warmer and the sun shined. No one in my school dared to mention anything about Hirasawa nor Suzuki, since they most likely knew I wouldn’t take it too kindly. Tadaaki and Ichiro were the only ones who asked me about them, but I always answered the same way: they’re just some people I knew. Soon, the questions settled down, and life went on as normal. I’ve visited the Hirasawa residence every now and then when I’ve had nothing better to do, and kept in contact with Hirasawa through phone.

Before long came March, and it was our last week in junior high. I picked up my buddies from the usual place, and headed to school. For some reason I felt a bit wistful towards the Yukinokawa Junior High. It held a lot of memories and soon I’d have to leave it behind. The last week of the junior high is usually pretty relaxed, so we had a lot of free time. We walked around the school, pointing at different places, and telling the memories attached to them. The time we slipped into the gym between classes to mess around, and the time we accidentally broke the hallway light, but we were never caught.

As the lunch break came by, we sneaked on the rooftop through service stairs, which was of course prohibited. We sat far from the edge so we wouldn’t get caught, watching the surrounding scenery, and enjoying our lunch. We still had a lot in front of us, a lot to learn, a lot to experience. After finishing our meals, we stayed on the rooftop for a while longer.

“Call me stupid, but… I’ll miss this place,” Ichiro muttered.

Tadaaki nodded. “I get what you’re saying.”

I glanced at them, and back at the neighborhood surrounding the school. “It’s just weird that a few months ago I couldn’t wait to get out of this shithole. But now, when that day is so close…”

My sentence got cut short due to the bell. We hastily got down from the roof before anyone could caught us.

A few days later I found myself from the school hall, receiving a certificate which stated that I’ve survived through junior high. So, that’s it, then. Just the high school left, and I’m free. My friends and I applied to the same high school, the one nearest to us, and the same that my brother goes to. Sure, it might not be the greatest, but not the worst either.

The next day I was napping on my bed, when my phone rang. It took me a while to realize this, since I still didn’t have a ringtone. But when I did realize it, I hastily got out of bed, falling on the floor. I didn’t have the strength to get back up, so I crawled towards my desk, and reached for the phone on top of it. As I got a hold of it, I slumped back on the ground and answered the call, a bit sleepy.

“…yeah?”

“Oh, uh, I hope I didn’t call you at a bad time,” the familiar voice in the phone said. It was Hirasawa.

I checked my watch, which told me it was afternoon.

“Oh, no, not at all,” I muttered into the phone, and sat up, leaning against my desk.

I heard Hirasawa sigh out of relief. “Good. My sis, Yui, graduated from junior high yesterday. If I’m correct, so did you?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said, eyeing the certificate in my bookshelf.

“Well, we were thinking about having a small graduation party. We’d go out to do something fun,” she said.

“I see, and you guys want me to come with you? Who else is coming?” I asked, finally getting on my feet.

“Exactly. Besides my sis and I, Jun-chan and Nodoka-chan are also coming,” she told me.

Nodoka… ah, that spectacle-headed girl. Well, I didn’t really have anything planned, and my family already held me a small ‘graduation party’ yesterday.

“Alright, fine by me.”

“Great! I’ll call you later, bye!” she said, and the call ended.

Guess I’ll have something to do tomorrow. Well, it always beats just sitting at home and doing nothing. I didn’t really feel like continuing on my nap, so I headed downstairs to make myself some coffee.

The next day I was walking through the neighborhood, my destination being the Hirasawa residence. As I walked with my hands in my hoodie’s pockets, I twiddled with a 5000 yen note I got from my mom when I told her about my plans for today. I soon got to the house, and ringed the doorbell. Hirasawa opened the door and directed me upstairs, where I saw Yui sitting at the coffee table, watching TV. She had a bowl of grapes in front of her.

“Oh, hi, Sugimoto-kun,” she greeted me, and turned her attention back to the TV.

I smirked as I took a seat right behind her on the sofa, and joined her at watching TV, which was showing a documentary about some rainforest. Yui kept eating her grapes, and from time to time threw one over her shoulder to give it to me. It always took me by surprise, but I somehow managed to catch every single grape. Doorbell rang, and soon Suzuki and the spectacle-headed girl arrived in the living room.

“Hi, Jun-chan, Nodoka-chan!” Yui greeted them.

I only waved my hand for a greeting, since I was too focused on watching the TV. Man, those orangutans sure are jolly creatures, huh. However, Suzuki walked behind me and slapped her hands on my shoulders, which made me flinch a bit.

“Hello~, Sugimoto-san? You awake?”

I turned to look at her. “Well hello there, Suzuki. Craving for attention, huh?”

She gave me a grin as she took her hands off my shoulders. I looked around for a bit, and turned to Hirasawa.

“I think everyone’s here?”

She seemed to realize it. "Oh, you’re right. Guess we should get going.”

As she shut the TV, Yui slumped on the table.

“Ui~, I was watching that,” she whined.

“I know, but we’re supposed to head out to celebrate your graduation,” Hirasawa said to her.

Yui jumped on her feet. “Oh, you’re right! Let’s go!”

As we walked towards the downtown, I decided to hold the rear of the group, since I still didn’t know this town too well. It also gave me an opportunity to look at my surroundings a bit, though only thing that caught my eye was a park not too far from the Hirasawa residence. It had a pond in the middle of it, which was a bit hard to spot due to all the trees surrounding it. It peaked my interest, so I tried my best to memorize its location.

The day went a lot better that I had anticipated. I saw a lot of new and interesting places. First we roamed around the shopping district for a bit. Nothing really caught my eye, but I still ended up buying a phone charm resembling a blue flower. Hirasawa said that it really matched me, which I really didn’t understand, since I was wearing my red hoodie.

After this we moved to a shopping mall to buy some new clothes. I didn’t feel like being in a women’s clothes shop, so I told them I’d look around the mall a bit. As I roamed around, I found a music shop in the mall’s basement floor, which I checked out. If I’m ever going to buy a guitar, I’d buy it here. I decided to head back to the clothes shop, where Yui excitedly showed me some of her new clothes. They actually looked nice. Suzuki, apparently, had bought herself a dress, but didn’t really want to show it. What’s the point of buying clothes if you’re just going to keep them hidden?

We were sitting at the corner table of the local burger joint as the sun was starting to turn orange.

“What a fun day,” Yui said as she was stretching her back.

Hirasawa nodded. “It sure was. I hope everyone enjoyed themselves.”

The rest of us agreed on having fun today. And I actually did have fun. After finishing our burgers, we decided to head home. I walked with the rest of the group for a while. Soon we came to a point where the rest of the group would cross the bridge over a river, while I’d continue on alongside the said river. As we got to the bridge, I thanked them for inviting me, and both Hirasawa and Yui thanked me for coming in the first place. We said our goodbyes, and I started heading home.

I put my hands in my pockets and glanced at the orange sky as I walked. I really enjoyed myself today. Maybe I should arrange something like this with Tadaaki and Ichiro. I, however, snickered at the thought. There’s no way I’d ever arrange anything. Not now, not ever. I’ll just invite them over to my place to eat some junk food and play video games. Or maybe I’ll ask Tadaaki if he could arrange some “drinks” for us, since it’s a graduation party, after all. Graduation, huh. It means the end of the junior high, which in turn means the beginning of high school. We still have a lot of time to mess around. I’m looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

I can’t remember what just happened. It was dark, I felt like I was floating in the air. As I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by water. Looking down, I saw nothing but darkness. Looking up, I saw light shining on the water’s surface. But suddenly, I started to drown. I couldn’t breathe, I felt anxious. I was kicking my feet, trying to swim to the surface. The water was thick, almost as if I were swimming in honey. Against all odds I managed to get to the surface. The light blinded me as I was gasping for air. Soon, however, the light moved away, as if it was nothing but a lamp.

As I looked around, I noticed the body of water I was currently in was actually a circular pool of some kind, coped with stone tiles. I climbed out of the pool, noticing that my clothes weren’t soaked at all. I looked around for a bit more, and found the light that blinded me earlier. Actually, it was a light orb. A green light orb. I started walking towards it. My walking turned into a jog, and soon I found myself sprinting as fast as I could. The green light orb, however, wasn’t getting any closer. Instead, it let out a flash of light, blinding me completely.

I opened my eyes, and saw my room’s ceiling. So it was just a dream. My awakening was caused by someone opening the curtains. I rolled over to my side and closed my eyes, trying to get back to sleep. However, someone started shaking me. At first I thought it might’ve been my sister or one of my parents. To my surprise, it was actually my big brother.

“Wake up, man. You don’t want to be late on the first day.”

Why the hell did my brother care so much about me being late? I raised my head and noticed my school uniform hanging from the closet’s handle. Ah, it’s my first day at high school. No wonder my brother bothered to wake me up. I sat on the edge of my bed and stretched a bit, while my brother left the room.

“Get dressed up and come downstairs,” he said before closing the door.

I scratched my head as I walked over to the school uniform. It consisted of navy blue jacket, white shirt, gray pants, and a red tie. Pretty basic, in other words. I got dressed up, and admired my new uniform for a bit, before heading downstairs. I grabbed myself a cup of coffee, and joined my brother at the living room couch.

“So, you’re a senior now, right?” I asked him.

He nodded. “Yup, and you’re a freshie.”

After noticing my confused expression, he snickered and explained: “Freshie means freshman.”

“Oh, wow. You came up with that all by yourself?” I muttered unamused, and sipped my coffee.

One light breakfast later, I grabbed my new schoolbag, and we were ready to head off. I felt a bit excited as we walked together towards the high school. I glanced at my brother, who didn’t care to button up his shirt and had tucked his school bag under his armpit.

Sugimoto Daichi, 17 years old. He’s my big brother now and forever, no matter whether I like it or not. He can be a bit stubborn at times, but I’ve got used to it. He’s the only one I’ve never beaten in a fight. After all, he’s taller and more fit than me. He’s also skilled at sports, which would be hard to believe, since he’s just lazing around during his free time.

The distance from my home to the high school was a bit under two kilometers. The amount of other students grew the closer we got. Soon I recognized two dudes from the group of students: Tadaaki and Ichiro. I waved my brother goodbye, ran up to the duo, and we continued on to the school.

Soon we stood in front of Kasumimashita High School. Its front yard hard stone tile paths going here and there, edged with bushes and other kinds of greenery, with a fountain in the middle of it. There also were some trees and benches here and there. The gray building itself resembled a crooked letter H from above, with the middle part being two stories tall and the rest being three. We looked around in awe as we walked towards the school’s main doors.

We were directed into the school’s auditorium, which was located right across from the main doors. I spent the next 20 minutes listening to the principal’s monologue about the new school year and so on. I already felt like taking a nap. After the speech, we walked to the second floor of the east wing, where our classroom was located. The room was filled with rows of decades-old desks, so it was nothing special, really. My desk was located in the middle of the window row. I got tired of teacher’s speech almost instantly, and only pretended to listen while gazing out of the window.

After the classes ended, my friends and I decided to explore the school a bit. The school’s lobby, however, was filled with students handing out flyers and outright begging the other freshmen to join their clubs. We tried to ignore them, since there’s no way we’d join any clubs. We, however, got swarmed. I thought I was about to die, when a hand appeared from amongst the students, grabbing my sleeve, and pulled me out to safety, Tadaaki and Ichiro following right behind me.

“You poor thing, they’ll eat you alive out there,” my brother Daichi said as he let go of my sleeve.

I folded my arms. “Let me guess: you also want us to join some club, right?”

Daichi scratched the back of his head and chuckled. “Well, yeah. But this club is a lot different than others. No need for athletic nor musical skills. Follow me, and I’ll show you.”

My friends and I looked at each other, and decided to go along with my brother. He led us to the back of the west wing, and opened a small door. Behind it were stairs leading down.

“A basement? Are we even allowed to go there?” I asked.

“Just trust me,” my brother answered, and started walking down the stairs.

The stairs led to a dimly lit hallway, filled with doors leading to storage rooms and whatnot. My brother walked to the end of the hallway and opened the door on the right. As we peeked inside, we were left open-mouthed; our eyes were met with a cozy looking room, with wooden floor and walls painted dark brown. One of the many small windows located near the ceiling was open, making the room’s air a lot fresher than back in hallway.

Three ragged couches sat in the middle of the room, arranged around a coffee table. Right across from it was a large CRT TV, accompanied by numerous old game consoles and VCR players. Right next to it was a huge shelf, holding different kinds of books, boxes, CD cases and whatnot. There also was a stereo system, which was currently blasting a rock song from 90’s. In the back of the room was a small kitchen of some kind, with a fridge and everything, and next to it a table and some chairs. This fucking place rocked!

There was one student sitting at the table, and two others laying on the couches. They didn’t seem to pay any mind when my brother opened the door. However, they jumped right on their feet when they saw us.

“Daichi, you brought us some freshies!” one of the students shouted.

“The future of the club is ensured!” another one whooped, throwing his hands in the air.

We stepped inside, taking a closer look around. I turned to my brother.

“So, what’s—”

“Coffee Club,” my brother answered, cutting my sentence short.

“This is a Coffee Club. As the name states, we drink coffee and hang out here.”

The student, who was sitting at the table, stepped forward, adjusting his glasses.

He told us a story: “Coffee Club was founded by an unknown student approximately seven or eight years ago, his name being lost in history. He was exploring around the school’s basement, when he happened to find this room. It was used as a temporary staffroom a long time ago when the school building was being renovated. Due to his discovery, he got an idea and decided to form a club. Obviously, ‘Hanging out Club’ wouldn’t be accepted, he decided to make it a Coffee Club, since he liked coffee. As the time went on, this student decided to actually make the club more coffee orientated, and started reviewing different kinds of coffees and coffee recipes.”

He pointed at a single, blue notebook laying in the shelf. Assuming it actually is eight years old, it’s in surprisingly good condition.

“So, now you know that this club is about drinking coffee and hanging out. What do you say, you want to join?” he asked us.

All the other club members, my brother included, leaned towards us. My friends and I glanced at each other, and nodded. We didn’t know anything better than hanging out. And coffee. We liked coffee.

Chapter Text

It’s been couple of weeks since the high school started. Everyday, after the classes ended, we headed to the school’s basement to spend some time. Sometimes, my brother and his friends were so noble, that they let us to have the club room to ourselves for the day. This time was the same. I opened the room’s door, noticing Tadaaki and Ichiro sitting on a couch. Both had cups of steaming coffee in their hands, and Ichiro was reading the Founder’s notebook.

“Hey, what took you so long?” Tadaaki asked.

I showed him the guitar case I was carrying. “I went to borrow this from the music classroom.”

I laid the guitar case against the wall, and walked over to the kitchen area to get myself a cup of coffee. However, as I was about to carry it over to the couch, I felt my phone ringing in my pocket. Hirasawa was calling me. I haven’t visited her since the graduation party, but I’ve kept in contact with her through the phone. For example, couple of days ago she told me about how her sister found her way into some music club. I glanced at my friends, who currently were talking about one of the recipes in Founder’s notebook. I decided to stay in the kitchen area to answer the call.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Hi, how are you doing?” Hirasawa asked, her tone being as friendly as ever.

“Just fine, actually. I’m currently at the club room,” I said, and took a sip out of my coffee.

“Nice to hear. It was a Coffee Club, right?” she asked.

I nodded to myself. “Yup. Ever heard of Moccachino? It rocks, I tell you!”

I heard her giggling at my overenthusiasm. “By the way, I haven’t seen you in a while. Would you like to do something tomorrow?”

She was right, we haven’t met in some time. And tomorrow was Saturday. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to hang out with her.

“Sure, sounds good. I’ll call you tomorrow at noon.”

“Alright, then! See you tomorrow, bye!” she said, and ended the call.

I kept staring at my phone for a few seconds, until I slipped it back into my pocket and sipped my coffee. I brought it over to the coffee table, where I set it down, and walked to the guitar case. I laid it on the floor, opening the latches, and taking out the steel string acoustic guitar it was carrying. It was a bit worn, but it still worked, which was the only thing I cared about. I sat on the couch, made sure the guitar was in tune, and started playing. The song was simple, but it still sounded good. To my ear, at least. My friends kept quiet during my playing, so maybe they thought so too.

The song was soon over, the silence following it feeling rather empty. However, Ichiro remembered something, and started digging his bag.

“Oh, I almost forgot. I brought that movie I told you guys about.”

We spent the afternoon watching some generic 80’s movie about some street punk, who happens to find a letter signed by the government and uncovers a major fraud in the process. To be honest, it was actually pretty good. The club room was already filled with stuff from 80’s and 90’s; movies, music, games, you name it. So, we decided to respect it, and spend our time with stuff from the past millennium. So far it’s been nothing but awesome.

Soon, it was Saturday. I was staring at my ceiling with half-open eyes, having just woken up. I laid there for a while, and finally got up. I threw some pants on, and moseyed down the stairs. The first thing to caught my attention was a group of girls sitting in the living room. Ah, my sister has some friends over.

“Morning,” I muttered to her, heading to the kitchen.

My sister turned around to glare at me, seemingly annoyed. “Morning? It’s already noon, just so you know.”

I snickered, still a bit tired, and started making myself some coffee. However, as I snapped the coffeemaker on, something clicked in my mind. Noon… Ah, I was supposed to call Hirasawa. I headed back upstairs to my room, where I got completely dressed up, with my red hoodie and all, and returned to the kitchen to get my coffee. I leaned against the fridge, sipping my coffee, and looking at my phone. After hesitating for a few seconds, I sighed and called Hirasawa.

“Hey, I’m available now.”

“Great. Uh, I was thinking that we could have a picnic, since the weather’s so nice at the moment,” she told me. “We could go to a park near my home.”

After thinking for a second, I remembered something: “The one with a pond?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

“Alright then, I’ll be there in about half an hour,” I said, sipping my coffee.

“Okay, see you then!” she said, and we ended the call.

Guess I should get going. I set my phone down on the counter, gulped the rest of my coffee down, and headed to foyer to get my sneakers on, and headed out. As I looked upwards, I was met with a clear sky. The weather was pretty nice, just as she said. I began walking.

It took me a moment to recall the way to the park. After finally managing to find it, I started venturing along its paved walkway, heading deeper into the park. Sun’s beams flickered amongst the trees’ branches, the wind blowing ever so slightly. However, besides me, there were only a few joggers and elderly people here and there. I’d expect a beautiful place like this to be crowded during weekends. Guess hanging out at a park isn’t that popular anymore? I arrived at the pond, and scanned my surroundings. I managed to spot someone resembling Hirasawa at the opposite end of the pond, and began walking around it.

As I finally got there, I halted in astonishment. Sure, it was Hirasawa alright, sitting on a park bench, facing the pond, but… She was dressed in a pink dress with a white, unbuttoned jacket on top of it. With the sunshine on her face and her hair fluttering in the gentle wind, she looked pretty. I was just standing here, staring at her for who know how long, until she finally noticed me.

“Ah, you’re here,” she said, smiling warmly.

It took me by surprise. “O-oh, yeah, hi.”

I walked over to the bench and took a seat on the opposite end of it, joining her at watching the pond. It vividly reflected the blue of the sky, a few ducks swimming on its surface. A gentle breeze blew past us. It was peaceful.

“What do you think about my clothes?” Hirasawa suddenly asked me.

“Well, uh, they’re nice,” I replied, trying my best not to blush.

She smiled at me, and grabbed the hem of her dress. “That’s nice to hear. I bought this some time ago, but I wasn’t sure if it’d look good on me.” Gal, you’re talking to a dude who wears nothing but the same red hoodie all the time…

“Ah, I also brought us some snacks,” she realized, grabbing a basket from the ground, and setting it on her lap. I took a peek, and saw some sandwiches, cookies, three teacups, a thermos… Hold on, three? Three teacups? Don’t tell me…

“Heeey~, Ui-chan!”

I turned around, and saw Suzuki running towards us, waving her hand. She circled the bench and sat in the middle, right between us.

“Ah, Suzuki. Did you miss me already?” I greeted her sarcastically.

“Yeah, a lot. I didn’t know what to do without you,” she responded, having noticed my sarcasm.

I smirked. This girl sure is fun. Hirasawa handed teacups over to us, and poured some tea into them from the thermos. As I sipped my tea, watching the pond in front of us, I realized something: this is exactly what I’ve been longing for. Peaceful moments, with nothing but a cup of tea and two good friends. I felt relaxed, completely forgetting about the world outside the park. Right now, at this moment, there was nothing else in my world but the pond, the ducks swimming in it, the two girls sitting next to me, and the tea I was holding. I finished my tea, setting the cup down next to me, and leaned back, closing my eyes.

A green light orb appeared… and it was gone. I woke up to someone shacking me. I tried opening my eyes, but the bright sky was too blinding, so I gave up. Soon, the shacking stopped. Finally, some peace…

“N-no, don’t slap him!” I heard a shout.

It made me wake up completely. I glanced to my left, seeing Suzuki with her hand raised up, ready to slap me. I shielded myself with my arm.

“I-I’m awake!”

Suzuki lowered her hand, placing her finger on her lower lip to look as innocent as possible. “Heh, sorry, I got a bit carried away.”

I wasn’t buying it. “Yeah, well, if you had hit me, I would’ve probably instinctively punched you back. Then neither one of us would’ve had fun.”

I saw a flash of fright in her eyes, as she seemed to understand my warning. Of course I was just kidding, but I wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t slap me awake any time soon. Over Suzuki, I saw Hirasawa sitting next to her, a scared expression on her face. However, she soon calmed down, sighing out of relief. She picked up the basket from the ground, and handed it over to me so that I could pick something from its contents. I decided to grab couple of cookies, which looked homemade. I threw one into my mouth, and… oh… oh my…

It’s fucking amazing!

…oh, shit, did I just let out some satisfied noises? I swallowed the cookie and hastily fixed my posture. However, it was too late; the girls had already noticed my reaction, and were both smiling at me.

I embarrassedly smiled back, showing them the other cookie between my fingers. “These are good.”

“Thank you. I baked them earlier today,” she said, seemingly pleased by my comment.

As I was done eating the second cookie, a strong breeze blew from behind us. And when I said strong, I meant it; leaves were flying around, trees were bending… even I was about to fall over. Hirasawa, however, had worse luck: the yellow string she uses to tie her hair into a ponytail got untied in the breeze and flew in the air. She tried to grab it, but to no affair. As the breeze died down, the string landed right in the middle of the pond.

“Oh no, that string was a present from my sister,” I heard her saying, a bit of sadness in her voice.

What a shitty situation. The string was nowhere near the shore, and I don’t think any one of us was willing to go for a swim. What a pity, I was about to say, until I saw Hirasawa’s sad expression. I don’t know why, but… I wanted to help her out. I glanced back at the pond, trying to come up with an idea. I don’t think I’d find a stick long enough to grab the string out of the water. Maybe some waves could carry it over to the shore, but the wind had died down and I’d only get in trouble for throwing rocks into the water…

“Waves…” I muttered out loud.

Suzuki turned to me, a curious expression on her face. “What, you have some kind of an idea?”

I started drumming the ground with my heel, a bit nervous. “…maybe.”

I stood up, walking over to the basket next to Hirasawa. I grabbed a bread part off of one of the sandwiches, shredding it into three parts. I rolled each of them into a ball, and started walking along the shore. The girls followed right behind me, both seemingly confused. I stopped at a spot where the string was closest to the shore. I grabbed one of the bread balls, checked its flight path, and threw it. It flew right over the string, plopping near it, just as I had planned.

Suzuki crossed her arms and leaned towards me. “I heard you talking about waves, but I’m not sure if that will do the trick.”

I glanced at her, but didn’t say a word. Instead, I pointed at the floating bread ball with my finger. A second later, half a dozen of ducks rushed over to the bread ball, creating a huge wave in the process, which carried the string a bit closer to the shore. The girls seemed to finally realize my plan. I threw another bread ball, and it landed right behind the string. The ducks, of course, rushed to it, and the string floated even closer to the shore. It was actually so close that I could’ve picked it up with a meter-long stick, but I couldn’t bother to search for one. Instead, I threw the last bread ball into the water, causing the ducks to create yet another wave. The string was finally right next to the shore.

I turned to Hirasawa. “See? It wasn’t difficult at all.”

I walked to the edge of the shore, which was about 30 centimeters higher than the water’s surface. I was crouching to pick the string up, when the gravel under my shoes made me slip, and fall headfirst straight into the water. I quickly realized I couldn’t do anything to save myself.

The water wasn’t very deep. Luckily, the bottom was sand, so I didn’t hurt my face as it struck against the bottom. The rest of my body followed me into the water, and soon I was completely submerged. However, I didn’t really care to stay there and ponder about it. My reflexes kicked in, and I bounced to the surface, gasping for air, and shaking the water out of my hair. I grabbed the yellow string floating right next to me. It’s this damn thing’s fault that I’m currently having a swim. I climbed to the shore, soaking wet.

I realized something and started pounding my pockets in panic, only to realize I had forgotten my phone at home. I glanced at the string in my hand, and handed it over to Hirasawa. She, however, was shocked, as was Suzuki. Guess my previous stunt had scared them, huh.

“I’m fine. I’m not hurt anywhere, I’m just soaked, that’s all,” I explained, trying to calm them down.

It was followed by silence. I wasn’t sure if my words had any effect, so I just handed the string Hirasawa again. After hesitating a bit, she took it.

“Ah, t-thank you. I-I don’t… you didn’t…” she stuttered.

“Yeah, whatever. What’s done is done,” I muttered.

I took my hoodie off, and began squeezing most of the water out of the sleeves. My watch was waterproof, so I didn’t need to worry about it.

Hirasawa was watching my doings for a while, until she looked at the ground and asked: “Would you… would you like to take a bath at my house?”

The question made me flinch. I noticed I was squeezing the sleeve so hard it almost changed shape.

“I, uh… well, um… uh…” I stammered.

Suzuki, who was watching the situation from the side, was giggling into her hand.

“And you, shut the hell up!” I snapped at her.

She didn’t care about my yelling, so I just ignored her. Let’s see now… a teenage dude taking a bath while two young girls are waiting behind the door. If we ignore the genders, I guess it made sense. I’d probably catch a cold or something if I walked home with soaked clothes. However, if I’d be able to clean myself and dry my clothes, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting sick.

I rubbed my chin for a moment, sighed, and turned to face Hirasawa. “Alright, sounds good.”

Hirasawa, surprised by my answer, asked: “A-are you sure?”

“Yeah, I am. I don’t like the idea of catching a cold, so drying my clothes would be the best option,” I said, throwing the hoodie on my shoulder.

She seemed to cheer up a bit after realizing I wouldn’t call her a pervert or something. I glanced at Suzuki, who was still a bit amused. We returned to the bench, where Hirasawa gathered all her stuff, and started heading towards Hirasawa residence. As we walked, Hirasawa called her sister and asked her to get the bath ready. Every step I took made a splashing sound. Quite uncomfortable, indeed.

A bit of walking later I stood at Hirasawa household’s yard tiling. As we walked to the front door, I left behind a wet trail. We got to the foyer and I took off my shoes, but before I could take a step forward, Hirasawa raised her hand in front of me.

“Wait here, I’ll take your shoes next to a heater, and bring you a towel.”

She grabbed my sneakers, and headed upstairs. I decided to took my socks off since they felt clammy. My jeans also were damp, but unfortunately I couldn’t take them off. Suzuki, who was sitting on the first step of the stairs, was staring at me. I was about to ask her about it, until she pointed her finger towards my head.

“You’ve got some sand in your hair,” she informed me.

I raked my fingers through my hair, and noticed some sand particles sticking under my fingernails. I leaned against the foyer’s wall and sighed.

“What a sh— crapshow…” I muttered, trying my best to control my vocabulary.

“That was an amazing dive you did back there,” Suzuki quipped with a grin.

I glanced at her, and smirked. “I should’ve grabbed you with me, the water was refreshing.”

We both chuckled for a while, and heard approaching footsteps from the stairs. Suzuki scooted to the side to make way for Hirasawa, who was carrying a towel.

“Here, dry yourself with this,” she said, handing the towel over to me.

I gave her a nod of thanks, and started drying myself, mostly my hair. Of course it didn’t dry completely, but it was something.

“Ah, by the way, your bath is ready,” Hirasawa told me.

I felt like kicking myself in the knee and falling over, but decided against the idea. Instead, I nodded in agreement.

“Right, thanks. I appreciate this, truly.”

Hirasawa gave me a relieved smile. I handed the towel back to her, and she started escorting me upstairs. I noticed her sister, Yui, laying on the living room’s floor, watching TV. She turned around to look at me.

“Oh, what happened to you?” she asked.

Explaining the whole story would take too long. However, I noticed a heater sitting in the corner of the room, and the yellow string laying in front of it (as well as my sneakers).

I pointed at the string: “That happened.”

Yui kept changing views between me and the string, clearly not understanding what I was saying. I’ll explain it to her later, so she wouldn’t ponder over it for the rest of her life. Hirasawa led me up one more set of stairs, bringing me to the top floor. The bathroom’s door was already open, and Hirasawa beckoned me to step inside, but stayed in the hallway herself.

She pointed at a compact drying rack in the corner. “You can hang your clothes there to dry. There’s a towel you can use next to the bathtub. When you’re done bathing, you can use that bathrobe on the counter.”

I nodded. “Got it. Anything else?”

Hirasawa put her index finger on her lips, thinking. “Well, that’s about it. When you’re done bathing, come back downstairs, I’ll make us some tea.”

I nodded and closed the door, locking it. I leaned against the bathroom counter to get a better look at myself in the mirror. My wet, brown hair was a mess, and I could see some sand particles in them. Well, time to get undressed, I guess. After a bit of world’s quietest undressing later, all my clothes were hanging from the rock, except for my boxers. I felt anxious. After a couple of calming breaths, I made sure the door was locked, checked the room for hidden cameras, and finally took off my boxers, putting them on the rack with the rest of my clothes.

I glanced at the mirror, only to find it steaming up. Guess Hirasawa increased the bathroom’s temperature so that my clothes would dry quickly. I tried to relax a bit, pretending I was in my own bathroom. Somehow it helped me to avoid a total breakdown. I opened the door that led to the bathtub itself, which was full of steaming water. I got into the bath, and slowly started descending, until only my head was above the surface. I started scrubbing the sand off my scalp. 

After five minutes or so, I was done cleaning myself. I dried myself with the towel, and walked back to the bathroom counters. I was about to grab the bathrobe, until I thought about it for a bit. I glanced at the drying rack, and grabbed my boxers. Sure, they were still a bit moist, but I don’t want to risk the girls seeing my dick. I put them on, and took the bathrobe. It was clearly meant for men. Their father’s, perhaps? I hope Mr. Hirasawa won’t mind… no, he definitely would mind. He would mind a lot.

I threw the bathrobe on, fastening the robe around my waist. I arranged my hair for a bit, took a deep breath, and unlocked the bathroom door. I glanced at my clothes once more, and carefully opened the door. The hallway was empty, save for a pair of slippers sitting right next to the door. But they weren’t the usual plastic slippers, no. They were a pair of comfy looking wool slippers. Damn, all this for me?

I walked downstairs, and saw Suzuki sitting at the coffee table, eating a cream donut. The sound of my footsteps made her flinch, but she didn’t raise her head. Actually, she hanged it even lower.

“I’ve got a bathrobe, don’t be shy,” I said, shaking my head.

“Y-yeah, but still…” she muttered, staring at her half-eaten donut.

I was about to say something, but decided not to, and just shrugged instead. I took a seat at my usual spot, facing the balcony door. The coffee table held a plateful of cream donuts, but no tea. Speaking of which, Hirasawa appeared from the kitchen, carrying a tea tray in her hands. She looked at me, flinched, and directed her gaze at the tray.

I threw my hands to my sides, a bit frustrated. “Oh, come on! I don’t look that terrible, do I?”

Hirasawa didn’t answer. I sighed and decided to give up. To be honest, I’d probably be the same in their shoes. After a bit of awkward silence, Hirasawa finally stepped forward, and set the teacups around the coffee table. I pulled back the robe’s sleeves and grasped the teacup, letting it warm my palms. Slowly, Hirasawa and Suzuki joined me at the coffee table, still staying quiet and glancing elsewhere. Well, whatever. I’ll just let them take their time. Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy my tea.

I woke from my thoughts to someone nudging my robe’s sleeve. I turned to look to my right, and saw Suzuki holding my sleeve.

“Hey, Sugimoto-san, are you listening?” she asked me.

“Huh? Uh, yeah,” I muttered, a bit confused.

She nodded, but didn’t let go of my sleeve. Instead, she pulled it, so I stood up, letting her lead me to the other side of the coffee table. In front of the TV, I noticed a pink PlayStation 2 console, with two controllers plugged in. I didn’t even need to ask what was on her mind. I sat on the floor, few meters away from the TV. At the same time I glanced at the coffee table, only to find it empty, and heard Hirasawa washing dishes in the kitchen.

“Well? What do you want to play?” Suzuki asked me, and pushed half a dozen of game cases to my face.

I took the cases and examined them, right away recognizing most. Some were good, and some would provide more entertainment if used as frisbees instead. The games didn’t include the kinds that I usually play - shooters and other mature games.

After pondering a bit, I chose on of the games: “What about this?”

Suzuki grabbed the game case, studied it a bit, and nodded; “Fine by me.”

She crawled to the console, and inserted the disc. Soon the game’s main menu popped on the screen, and I grabbed the controller. It was a snowboarding game. Actually, it was one of my favorite games. I tried my best not to smirk as I browsed through the menu and chose multiplayer mode. I chose the map and my game character. After customizing the character a bit, I pressed the Ready-button. I turned to look at Suzuki, who seemed a bit surprised due to my knowledge of the game, but didn’t say a word. Instead, she chose her own character, and we were ready to race.

Three minutes passed, and the race was over. I got the first place, while Suzuki got the sixth. I hesitatingly turned to look at Suzuki, who was staring at the TV in awe. I grimaced a bit as I tried to come up with something to say. Suddenly, Suzuki dropped the controller on the carpet, quickly turned to face me, and grabbed me by the bathrobe’s collar, pulling me closer to her.

“Why didn’t you tell you knew this game!? Why didn’t you tell you’re so good at this!?” she shouted, staring right into my eyes.

“Uh, well, um, uh…” I stuttered.

She pulled me so close to herself that I could feel her warm breath on my face. From her brown eyes, I saw a reflection of my terrified expression.

“Why!?”

In a nanosecond my brains received the message, and immediately began searching for a suitable answer. They were met with hundreds of error messages and system crashes. After approximately four seconds, I finally received the answer.

“…sorry…” I muttered.

Suzuki kept staring at me angrily for a while, until she finally let go of me, throwing herself backwards. I almost fell on my face, but I managed to balance myself back to sitting position. I looked at Suzuki, who was sitting in fetal position, ashamedly looking at the controller she dropped. After a bit of silence, she suddenly chuckled, a bit embarrassed.

“Guess I overreacted a bit. Sorry about that,” she apologized.

I felt like saying something inappropriate, but discarded the thought. “A bit? Yeah, maybe if you put it mildly.”

Suddenly, we started hearing giggling. We turned to look at the sofa, and saw Hirasawa, trying to cover her laughing mouth with her palm. At some point she had returned to the living room and spectated our playing without us noticing. She eased her laughing after we noticed her presence. However, she quickly fell silent, and just kept staring at me, her face turning bright red. A bit confused, I turned to Suzuki for answers, but she was blushed too. I kept glancing at the two of them for a while.

“What?” I finally asked.

Hirasawa pointed at me. “Y… you… your…”

I glanced at Suzuki, who also began stuttering: “Y-your…”

She pointed her finger at my bathrobe. A bit confused, I glanced downwards, and half of my brain died. When Suzuki was trashing me around, the robe’s belt became loose. My crotch was fully visible. Thank the fucking lord I decided to wear my boxers. Seems like even that was too much for them. It was too much for me, too. I quickly pulled the bathrobe tightly shut, fastening the belt, and tying in with a double knot.

“All done, you could’ve just said something,” I said, trying to keep my cool.

Their blushes had started to disappear, and they felt a bit awkward. To be honest, I felt so too. The living room was filled by the nonexistent voice of our silence, the time crawling by. It seemed to be too much for Hirasawa.

“A-are you hungry?” she asked.

Suzuki and I glanced at each other, and then back at Hirasawa, waiting for continuation.

“I-I could order us some pizza. We could also watch some movie,” she suggested.

The idea wasn’t half bad, I actually was getting hungry, and it’d take longer than this until my clothes would dry. I looked at Suzuki, who shrugged, and we nodded to Hirasawa.

While we were waiting for the pizza, I decided to teach Suzuki how to play. She learnt pretty quickly, and soon we had some actually tight matches. Our pizza arrived soon after that, and Hirasawa gave us the task of choosing the movie. Their movie collection didn’t have anything that caught my eye, so I let Suzuki make the decision. She chose some comedy-drama, which was better than nothing. We spent the afternoon watching a movie and eating pizza.

After the movie was finished, I went upstairs to check on my clothes. They still were a bit damp, but not so much that it would be a bother. I wanted to hurry back home, since my mother would be making dinner soon. It’s not that I was hungry, I just didn’t want to worry her. After getting undressed, I returned downstairs, telling the girls about my plans to head home. They escorted me to the foyer, where we said our goodbyes to each other, and I headed out.

As I walked, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Playing games, eating pizza, watching movies… I’ve done all that with Tadaaki and Ichiro. But, it somehow felt refreshing to do those things with Hirasawa and Suzuki. They were different, in a good way. Not that there’s anything wrong with my old friends, of course. I slipped my hands into my hoodie’s pockets, and started humming the main menu theme of that snowboarding game.

Chapter Text

The weather got warmer, people started wearing less clothing, and all school students switched over to summer uniforms. Yup, it was summer, alright. I, however, still kept my jeans and red hoodie on, since I didn’t mind the heat that much. Also, summer vacation would begin in just a few weeks, which everybody waited for.

I flinched awake due to a noise that sounded a lot like a car horn. I rolled my computer chair around, stood up, and headed to the window to find the culprit. Two motorists shouting at each other on the intersection in front of our house, nothing serious. Soon both of them disappeared, and I yawned, massaging my aching neck. Huh, looks like I fell asleep at my computer table. I walked over to the table and shook the mouse to wake the computer from sleep mode. Seems like I was watching some movie last night. Well, I don’t remember much of it, so I reminded myself of watching it again later, and closed the video player.

As I tiredly walked downstairs, I was met with the pleasant aroma of coffee. I headed to the kitchen, where I saw my brother browsing the fridge.

“There’s something weird going on. No matter how many times I check the fridge, there’s never anything new there.”

I chuckled to his shitty joke as I grabbed a mug from a cabinet. “Go shopping, then.”

“Nah, Tamiko is already handling it,” he muttered, and closed the fridge.

Sugimoto Tamiko, our 14-year-old sister. If none of our parents are around, is usually her who does the cooking and such, since my brother and I are both useless. She seems to be the only one of us who has inherited our mother’s traits: light hair, green eyes… she almost looks like a foreigner. She’s also my most treasured person. No one, who knows me, has dared to bully her. Though, on the other hand, she might have a reputation of being “delinquent’s sister”.

“Hey, Eiji! Hey!” Daichi shouted.

I woke from my thoughts, glancing at my coffee, which was flooding over the edges. God damn it, I really got to stop thinking about stuff when I’m doing things that need concentration, like pouring coffee into a mug. With an annoyed snarl, I quickly began cleaning the table. Afterwards I carried the coffee upstairs to my room, and began browsing my favorite imageboard.

As I finished my coffee, I heard the front door opening. Tamiko must’ve returned. As I was walking down the stairs, I saw Daichi reaching his hand towards Tamiko.

“Give me the change, I need to buy something myself.”

Tamiko, however, just glanced downwards, not saying a word. She walked past my confused brother, and set the grocery bag down on the kitchen counter. Something happened, I just know it. I quickly returned upstairs to grab my hoodie, since I had a feeling I’d need to venture outside, after which I headed to the kitchen, where Daichi was still trying to ask Tamiko about the money. Tamiko saw me peering into the kitchen, and flinched.

“I… I… I lost them! They fell out of my pocket!”

She looked at both of us, and quickly realized we weren’t buying into that. Tamiko has never been a good liar. I walked to her, crouched down a bit, and looked her into her eyes.

“Tamiko, who was it?” I asked.

“W-what do you mean who?” she muttered, glancing elsewhere.

“Hey, eyes up here,” I calmly said to her, and our eyes met once again. “Who was it? And where?”

She kept looking at me for a moment, until she glanced downwards, and started telling. Some guy, probably the same age as her, had snatched the money from her hand as she was stepping out of the store. She gave me a description of the guy and told me the direction he ran off to.

I nodded, placing my hand on her head. “Don’t worry, I’ll get the money back,” I said with a slight smile.

“J-just don’t hurt anyone, please,” she muttered.

I didn’t answer. Instead, I headed to the foyer to get my shoes on. I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, noticing my brother behind me. He silently hit his fist against his palm, and I nodded for an answer. He gave me a thumbs-up with a grin. I stepped outside, glancing at the partly cloudy sky. I began walking towards the store.

Few minutes later I arrived at the grocery store, and headed to the direction the guy allegedly ran off to. I glanced at a side alley, and halted. There he was. Striped hoodie, a buzz cut… yup, that’s the culprit. He was leaning against a wall, checking his phone. I took couple of deep breaths, trying to calm myself down, and walked towards him. I stopped, standing few meters from him.

“Yo, what’s up?” I greeted.

He raised his gaze from his phone, looking at me confusedly. Man, he’s clearly just some wannabe punk. I couldn’t help but smirk.

“Have you seen my sister around here?” I asked him.

The guy slipped his phone into his pocket, staying quiet. I slowly started walking towards him.

“You know, about same age as you, maybe.”

Guy didn’t speak, but kept staring at me. I stopped walking, looking him straight in the eyes, and lowered my voice.

Light hair, white shirt, blue shorts, carrying a grocery bag, happened to lose the money she had in her hand.

This made the guy take a step backwards.

“What’s it to you? You have any idea who you’re messing with?” he asked.

I took a step closer, shaking my head. “No, I couldn’t give a shit about who you think you are.”

The guy tried his best to keep his cool. Man, just give up, already.

I reached my hand to him. “Now, I’d like the money back.”

“Fuck you,” he retorted, taking another step backwards.

I bit my lip as I tried to keep calm. “Really, dude? We have to result to this?”

“I said fuck you!” the guy shouted, and threw a punch at me, hitting me in the cheek.

I kept looking at him, and rubbed my cheek. After a few seconds, I started to chuckle.

“Bad mistake, boy.”

Before the guy could do anything else, I ran a step forward, grabbing him by the collar, and pushing him on the ground. I pressed my knee on his chest, and started beating him.

Punch

“You just wanted to get beaten up, huh?”

Punch

“I’m not fucking around, you know.”

Punch, punch

“Where’s the fucking money!?”

Punch, punch

As I was aiming for another hit, the guy quickly dug out a handful of cash from his pocket. “H-here! It’s here!”

I held my fist in the air, glancing at the money in his hand, and then at his frightened face, blood dripping from his nose. I lowered my fist and grabbed the money from his hand. I stood up, counting the money, while the guy rolled over to his side, holding his bleeding nose.

After making sure every penny was there, I shoved the cash in my pocket, and smirked at the guy; “Well now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

The guy glanced at me from the corner of his eye, not saying a word. Not that I wasn’t expecting an answer. I looked at my shaking hand and its bruised knuckles, raising the index finger towards the guy.

“Don’t make me come back,” I muttered, and left the side alley.

When I got home, I gave the money to my brother, who was waiting for me in the foyer. Before he could ask anything, I showed him my bruised knuckled. He nodded with a grin. As I was heading upstairs, my sister noticed me from the living room.

“You didn’t hurt him, right?” she asked, clearly concerned.

I shook my head, keeping my right hand hidden in my pocket. “Of course not, I just talked him over.”

I walked up the stairs, and headed to the bathroom to wash off the blood. As I was drying my hand, I glanced at my reflection on the mirror, and kept staring at it. Obviously, this wasn’t the first time I’ve fought, and I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last. Of course I always try to talk things through first. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

This is the me I’ve been talking about. The me I don’t want Hirasawa and Suzuki to find out about.

As I stepped into my room, I noticed my phone vibrating on the table, so I picked it up. The caller was unknown. I thought about it for a while, and decided to answer.

“Yeah?”

“Hey, Sugimoto-san!” a familiar voice greeted me.

“…Suzuki? Where did you get my number?” I asked, confused.

“Ui-chan gave it to me,” she told.

I closed my room’s door, and walked to the window to check out the scenery. “She gave it to you, or did you ask for it?”

She was quiet for a few seconds, until she chuckled nervously. “Never mind that. So, didn’t you once say that you don’t know this town that well?”

“Yeah,” I answered. However, I started thinking about her question more carefully. “Don’t tell me…”

“Let’s go to the pool!” she suggested enthusiastically.

The pool… go to the pool… go to the pool with a teenage girl

It was too much. My feet gave in, and I crashed on the floor. As I was laying there on my stomach, I moved the phone close to my mouth.

“…why?” I whispered.

Suzuki chuckled. “The pool was reopened last week after a renovation, and I’d really like to go there. But, I don’t want to go alone,” she explained.

Somehow, this information helped me to calm down. I got on my feet, and glanced at the clear blue sky through the window.

“What about Hirasawa?” I asked.

“Ah, she can’t come.”

I unintentionally raised my eyebrow; “Why?”

“I don’t know. I asked her first, but she just told me she was busy.”

“So, I’m your last hope? The last person you’d ask to hang out?” I asked sarcastically, smirking.

After a bit of silence, Suzuki carefully answered: “…maybe?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yeah, I guessed as much.”

“So, uh, you coming?” she asked.

I shrugged to myself. “Eh, sure, why not.”

So it was set, then. She told me to meet her at a nearby train station in half an hour, and we ended the call. Man, I thought we’d just go roam around the downtown, but to the pool? Well, I’ve never been there before, so it was fine by me.

I took my backpack, stuffing it with my swim trunks and a towel, and headed downstairs. I stopped by at the kitchen to grab myself a small soda bottle, and headed to the foyer. As I was getting my shoes on, Tamiko peeked from the living room.

“Are you going somewhere?” she asked me.

It took me a couple of seconds to come up with an answer: “…to the pool with my friend.”

“Okay, have fun,” she said with a smile and disappeared back to the living room.

Thank god this family doesn’t ask too many questions. I double-checked I had everything with me, and headed out.

Soon I arrived at the train station. I scoped it out, not finding Suzuki. Well, guess I’ll just wait. I took a seat on a bench, spending my time by watching the blue sky. Man, it sure was warm. I, however, didn’t have to wait for too long. From the corner of my eye, I saw someone familiar approaching the bench.

I turned to face the person. “Yo, you finally decided to show u—”

It was Suzuki, alright. What surprised me was her attire: a beautiful, flower patterned sun dress. I was so used to seeing her in shorts and jeans. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in feminine clothing.

She, of course, noticed me admiring her clothing. She crouched down in front of me and snapped her fingers. It made me realize the situation, and I quickly turned my gaze back to the sky. Suzuki, however, decided to lean closer.

“You like what you see?” she whispered.

“…fuck off,” I muttered, trying to hold my blush.

“Now, now. Language, Sugimoto-san,” she said with an amused grin, taking a seat next to me.

I spent the following minutes in an awkward silence, until our train arrived at the station. We boarded the train, our destination being the pool.

Sure, I’ve known of the pool’s existence, but I’ve never cared to go there. Maybe if Tadaaki or Ichiro would’ve asked me, sure, but they, neither, care about playing in water. I mean, sure, I can swim, thanks to the school’s swimming classes. I’ve also been at a beach couple of times. In other words, I’m capable of swimming, but I don’t really like to do it on my own.

Sometime later we arrived at the pool. We both headed to our respective locker rooms. I found a suitable locker, stuffing my clothes inside and changing into my swim trunks. After making sure the locker was locked and that the key’s strap was firmly around my ankle, I headed off towards the pool.

Shielding my eyes from the blinding sun, I gazed at the pool. Or pools. There were surprisingly many bodies of water, filled and surrounded by hundreds of people. I also spotted a very tall water slide further away. God damn, I got to try that out, despite my fear of heights.

I scoped my surroundings in awe for a while, until I remembered I wasn’t alone here. I looked around for Suzuki, and spotted her standing near the women’s locker room. She was wearing a crimson two-piece swimsuit, carrying her red bag on her shoulder. In turn, she seemed to be looking for me. I did some indefinable movements with my right leg, trying to decide if I should walk to her or go to a completely opposite direction. She, however, managed to spot me, and started walking towards me. Blah, guess I’ll have to go through with this…

We spent the next few hours messing around the pool. At least I think it was a few hours, since at one point I fell asleep under a parasol, so I wasn’t quite sure about the time. Nevertheless, it was fun. I even completely forgot about our opposite genders.

I was sitting a bit away from the pool under a parasol, drinking a blended ice drink and watching people having fun, when Suzuki returned to me, carrying two ice creams. I nodded for a thanks as I took one of the ice creams, and Suzuki sat down next to me. I licked a tongueful of ice cream into my mouth as I continued watching the surrounding area. However, Suzuki suddenly spoke.

“…you know, Ui-chan didn’t want to come with us.”

The information surprised me. I turned to Suzuki, waiting for her to continue. She kept her eyes forward, looking at nothing in particular.

“I had originally planned for us three to come here. At first, Ui-chan agreed to my invitation, but when I mentioned you, she just fell silent,” she told.

I tried opening my mouth, but no words came out. I didn’t know what to say. So, instead, I just let her continue.

“…I really can’t put it in prettier words. It actually happened exactly like that. She really said that she didn’t want to come.”

What the hell…? Ugh, I got to say something, or I’ll collapse; “In that case, you could’ve just forgotten about me. I don’t really care even if I wasn’t invited.”

Suzuki processed my words, and became depressed. Fuck, I should’ve chosen my words more carefully.

“Uh, I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of fun, and I’m grateful that you intended to invite me from the very beginning,” I hastily corrected my words.

After a few painfully long seconds, Suzuki turned to face me, and smiled. “Thanks.”

A bit of more playing later we decided it was time to head back home. During the train ride, Suzuki almost fell asleep on my shoulder, seemingly tired from all the playing. To be honest, I was a bit exhausted, too. Returning to our station, we said our goodbyes to each other, and headed in opposite directions. I walked alongside the river, glancing at it once in a while. However, I decided to halt, and just watch the river.

Hirasawa didn’t want to come. All because I’d be coming too. But why? Was it because we’d be at a pool, and it would be embarrassing? Or was there something else? Have I said something bad to her? No, wait… has someone else said something to her? Did she figure out about my personality? About my reputation? I… I don’t fucking know. I’ve got to stop being so pessimistic, always assuming the worst, but, I just can’t help it. There must be some reason…

Fucking hell, I’m just overthinking this. I’ll just ask her about it later. After a bit of pondering, I repositioned my backpack, and continued on walking back to home.

Chapter Text

My summer vacation was spent a bit more lazily than the past ones. Couple of weeks after my visit at the pool, I turned 16. As always, my mom baked me a delicious cake, I got some presents, and I spent the night drinking beer with Tadaaki and Ichiro. I’ve become to question birthdays. As far as I know, it’s just a celebration of one’s survival through the past year, and all the gifts and treats are like rewards. Like leveling up your character in some videogame or something.

As the time would go on, it wouldn’t be too long until I’d stop receiving those rewards, since birthdays are more of a juveniles’ party. A step closer to the adulthood, a step closer to the future. When those milestones are reached, birthdays become just a reminder of how long you’ve been alive.

Day by day you’re closer to your expiration date, and some day you just stop existing. I can’t help but to think what it would feel like if I’d know the exact date of my death. What would I do? Would anything even matter at that point? Ugh, I don’t know. I don’t know a damn thing.

As the summer vacation itself rolled through, I didn’t do a thing. I just stayed home, playing videogames, browsing the internet, or just laying on my bed. I didn’t feel like doing anything. Sure, Tadaaki and Ichiro tried to invite me outside a couple of times, but I just told them I wasn’t in the mood. Soon after, they decided to leave me alone. I don’t think this will affect our relationships, since we’d be together at school when the vacation ends.

Only few days until the summer vacation would end. I was laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, my wrist on my forehead. My hair was a mess. The afternoon sun shined through the window, warming my feet. My eyes were sore, my head hurt. My thinking was interrupted by my phone, which started vibrating on the computer table. I turned my head and watched as the phone moved bit by bit due to the vibration. I didn’t feel like answering it, I didn’t even care who it was. Hopefully, they’ll give up soon.

The phone vibrated itself off the table, and fell straight into a trash bin. I chuckled, and turned my gaze back to the ceiling, listening to the vibrating trash bin. As I had hoped, the vibration stopped. It was quiet. However, some moments later the bin vibrated again, this time letting out a message tone. Whoever tried to call me earlier sent me a text message, I reckon. It began to bother me, so I forced myself to stand up, and walked to the trash bin, crouching down. I picked my phone amongst the trash, checking its lid. The message was from someone I knew. From a certain girl.

Hirasawa Ui, 1 unread message, my phone stated. I felt like ignoring it, but, I was a bit curious. I browsed around my phone’s menu, trying to decide between messaging and calling. Ugh, maybe I should check her message first. I browsed my way to the messages folder.

Sender: Hirasawa Ui
Hey, Sugimoto-san! I haven’t heard of you in a long time. How are you doing? Have you been busy this summer? I tried asking Jun-chan, but she doesn’t know. Even my sis is asking about you. I can’t help but feel a bit worried. So, call me, just to let me know that you’re alright.
- - - - -

I didn’t know what to do. I tried to stand up, but it felt difficult. I barely managed to walk back to my bed, crashing on top of it. Why the hell would Hirasawa be worried about me? I thought she didn’t want to spend time with me, since she hasn’t contacted me after Suzuki’s and my visit to the pool. I re-read the message several times, each time more confused. I sighed, opening the contact list, and dialing Hirasawa’s number. I sat up, holding the phone to my ear nervously. The dial tone sounded frustratingly long, until it suddenly stopped.

“Hello?” a familiar voice answered.

I opened my mouth to talk, but no words came out.

“…Sugimoto-san?” she continued.

It made me stutter: “Uh, um… hi.”

Hirasawa sounded to sigh out of relief. “Hey, nice to hear of you! How have you been?”

“Uh, fine, I guess,” I answered. However, before Hirasawa could talk, I quickly corrected myself: “…or, well, I’ve been better. I feel kind of lonely right now.”

“…is there some way I can help?” Hirasawa asked, sounding worried.

“Nah, you did already by calling me. By the way, sorry about my negligence. I didn’t mean to worry you nor Suzuki,” I said. I couldn’t control my mouth, I told her everything I felt.

“Ah, well, that’s nice to hear,” Hirasawa said. “Um, would you like to come over for some tea?”

Few months ago I would’ve been uncertain, but not now. I really needed to see somebody familiar. “Sure.”

“Great, my sis and I will be waiting for you here.”

“Alright, then. I’ll be there in about half an hour, see you then,” I stated, before ending the call.

I threw my hoodie on my shoulders, stopped by at the bathroom to fix my hair a bit, and headed downstairs. After getting my shoes on, I stepped on the porch, smelling the refreshing summer air, and started heading towards the Hirasawa residence.

Soon, I was standing in front of the three-story house. It sure has been a while since I last visited this place. I walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell. To my surprise, it was Yui who opened the door. She had her usual goofy smile on her face, which soon disappeared when she laid her eyes on me.

“…who are you?”

“Are you kidding?” I asked her, a bit frustrated.

Somehow, my annoyed face helped her to remember me. “Ah, Sugimoto-kun! Come on in.”

I followed Yui up the stairs. When I got there, I turned to face the living room, finding Hirasawa sitting at the coffee table. Our eyes accidentally met, and I couldn’t turn my gaze away. I felt ashamed for making her worry about me. Hirasawa, however, just smiled and cocked her head.

“Hey, Sugimoto-san.”

“Uh, yeah, hi,” I muttered, walking over to the coffee table, and sitting down at my usual spot.

I raised my head to see Hirasawa better. “Been a few months, huh?”

“It sure has been. Nice to see you again,” she said, handing over a steaming cup of tea to me.

I nodded for a thanks, and took a sip. Man, I’ve missed this taste. At the same time, Yui took a seat next to Hirasawa.

“Huh? Were you somewhere?” she asked, having listened to our conversation.

I thought about it for a bit, and answered: “I was in my thoughts.”

As I guessed, Yui looked very confused, which made me smirk. I took another sip, and decided to explain a bit better.

“I mean, I was at home, thinking about stuff.”

Yui didn’t seem to listen to me, but was still trying to process my previous answer.

“Ah, now I get it!” she stated, giggling.

I glanced at Hirasawa, who just smiled at her sister. She turned back to face me.

“What were you thinking about all that time?” she asked.

I raised my eyebrow. “Does it matter?”

“Uh, I guess not, just asking,” she said.

I kept gazing at her, and sighed. “Well, to be honest, I can’t remember. Never have my thoughts been too important. I always worry too much about stupid and irrelevant things. Bypassers’ gazes, the weather, stuff related to school… that kind of things. And while I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t doing anything too important, neither. Just playing some videogames, browsing internet, watching movies… I feel like I’ve wasted this summer, but there’s nothing I can do about it now, so whatever, I guess. I also turned 16. That’s pretty much about it.”

The sisters listened to my ramblings, both staying quiet. After I was done, Hirasawa seemed to process my tale word by word, until she noticed something.

She leaned over the table. “What, you had your birthday?”

“Uh, yeah?” I answered, a bit confused due to the sudden approach.

“When?” she asked, sitting back down.

“Uh, a bit before the summer vacation.”

Hirasawa sighed; “I would’ve wanted to wish you happy birthday.”

I was about to say that it wasn’t that important, but I decided to keep quiet, since I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So, we just kept drinking our tea in silence, while listening to the whirring of a small fan in the corner of the room, and the singing of cicada. Yui, however, didn’t seem to care for the silence.

“Oh, right! My club and I will perform at our school’s festival in a couple of months!” she proclaimed.

I looked at her, a bit surprised. “Is that so? Well, I’ll see if I can make it there.”

Yui seemed pleased with my answer. Hirasawa, however, realized something.

“Sugimoto-kun? You play guitar, right?” she asked.

Now where’s this coming from? “Uh, a bit. Why?”

I glanced at Yui, who seemed shocked. Before I could ask anything, she suddenly stood up.

“Wait here! Don’t go anywhere!”

She rushed upstairs. Confused, I glanced at Hirasawa, who was just smiling. I heard rumbling upstairs, accompanied by Yui’s fast footsteps. Soon, Yui returned to the living room, carrying a sunburst guitar. I exchanged glances between her and the guitar, not knowing what to say.

“Uh…” I was about to say, until Yui handed the guitar over to me.

“Play something!” she requested.

Hesitatingly, I took the guitar. “Uh, yeah, sure.”

I rotated the guitar in my hands, examining it more closely. It was red on the edges, the color turning orange in the middle. It was good looking, sure, but also a bit heavy.

“Les Paul, huh? I’ve heard these are good,” I said, remembering seeing this guitar in some magazine some time ago.

“Oh?” Yui muttered, clearly not having the slightest idea of what I was talking about. I bet she chose this guitar just because it looked cool…

I quietly strummed the lowermost string, trying to come up with something to play. I only knew a handful of songs. I decided to play the theme song of one of my favorite movies. I cracked my knuckles, set my fingers to Am-chord, and started playing. Playing an electric guitar without an amplifier felt a bit empty, but it didn’t seem to bother my audience. The Hirasawa sisters quietly listened to my playing.

A minute passed, and the song was over. I slowly raised my head, facing the sisters. Hirasawa started applauding.

“That was great!” she said, excited.

Yui, however, just stayed quiet, dumbfounded. After a bit of silence, she finally opened her mouth.

“…Sugimoto-kun?”

“Yeah?” I answered, resting the guitar on my lap.

“Could you please teach me?” she asked.

“…what?”

She leaned a bit closer. “I said: could you please teac—"

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time,” I said, cutting her sentence short. “But, why? Can’t you play yourself?”

She didn’t answer. I glanced at the guitar, and then at her.

“You have such an expensive and fine guitar, so you must be pretty good, right?”

She still didn’t say a thing.

I gave her the nastiest glance and lowered my voice; “Don’t tell me you bought this guitar just for its looks.”

She turned her gaze down and nodded, blushing slightly. I stopped acting serious and chuckled.

“It’s a nice guitar,” I said, handing the guitar back to her.

“Uh, thanks,” she answered.

I leaned on the table with my elbow, and asked out of curiosity: “You go to Sakuragaoka, right? What are your club member like?”

She told me a long story about the bassist, drummer, and pianist (who, apparently, makes good tea).

“…right. So, what do you guys do?” I asked her, expecting to hear about their genre or songs.

“We drink tea and eat snacks,” she answered, like it was nothing.

My elbow slipped and I almost hit my head against the table out of confusion. “Uh, I mean, don’t you guys practice?”

Yui put her finger on her lower lip, glancing upwards. “Well, sometimes, I guess.” I didn’t have time to ask anything, until she remembered something, and leaned closer. “Oh, this summer we held a training camp at a villa right next to the sea!” she excitedly told me.

Villa? I was about to ask about it, but decided against the idea.

We spent the following hour by chatting and eating snacks. As we ran out of things to talk about, Yui began watching the TV, and Hirasawa headed to the kitchen to wash the dishes. I got tired of the TV pretty quickly, and began glancing around. I looked behind me, noticing a small bookshelf behind the dining table. I thought about it for a while, and decided to walk over to the shelf, crouching down next to it. Checking the books, I quickly realized they were for a mature audience, something that a kid would quickly get bored of. I, however, didn’t feel like a kid, so I grabbed one of the books and began reading it. To my surprise, it actually seemed pretty good.

After reading through few pages, I felt a vibration in my pocket. I checked my phone, and noticed a message from my mom, which stated that the dinner would soon be ready. I checked my watch, sighed, and stood up. I turned to face Hirasawa, who was watching TV with her sister.  

“Hey, uh, I got to head back home,” I told her.

“Ah, okay,” she answered, turning to face me. However, her eyes were soon drawn to the book I was holding. I was about to put it back on the shelf, when Hirasawa spoke: “Do you like it? You can borrow it, if you want.”

“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” I said, pulling my hand back.

She escorted me to the foyer. At the door, I raised the book I was holding.

“When do you want this back?”

“Ah, it doesn’t matter. Bring it back when you’re done with it,” she answered with a smile.

I nodded, waved for a goodbye, and began heading home. However, some minutes later I realized I forgot to ask her about why she refused to go to the pool with Suzuki and I. Or, well, maybe it’s not that important, since she invited me to her house, after all. There’s still a few days of summer vacation left. Tadaaki would be returning from his vacation today, so we still have some time to have fun.

Chapter Text

I was in the middle of scribbling explosions into my math notebook when the bell rang, ending the school day. I swept the notebook into my schoolbag, and glanced out of the window. The weather was nice, all right. Tadaaki called me from the classroom’s doorway, so I stood up and walked over to him. Before stepping out of the class, I waved my hand to Ichiro, who was in cleaning duty. Tadaaki and I headed to the school’s left wing, and walked down to the basement floor. As we stepped into the club room, I quickly noticed how stuffy the air was. I threw my bag on the couch, and reached up to open one of the windows. Much better.

“Any wishes?” I asked as I walked over to the kitchen area.

“Well… Yanyang would be nice,” Tadaaki answered, crashing on the couch.

After ten minutes or so, the coffee was ready. Leaving enough for Ichiro, I prepared two cups, and carried them over to the couches, handing the other one over to Tadaaki. I took a seat on the couch, resting my legs on top of the coffee table. I reached over to grab one of the remotes, pointing it towards the stereo system. The speakers started blasting 90’s rock music. I sipped my coffee, and glanced at Tadaaki, who was just staring at his cup. It’s unlike him of being so quiet, something must be wrong.

I took my legs off the coffee table, leaned a bit forward, and asked him: “What’s on your mind?”

Tadaaki glanced at me, and then upwards. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for a while… I saw you during summer vacation.”

That’s it? Well, better let him continue. “That same day, I had just come home from vacation. And, well… I saw you in a neighborhood, south-west of here.”

My jaw dropped a bit. I set the coffee cup down on the table, and turned to face Tadaaki. “Wait, how—”

He interrupted be by talking over me: “I was sitting in my dad’s car. They decided to stop by at some small store, so I waited in the car. However, the parking lot was across from a certain neighborhood.”

Hold on… there’s a parking lot right across from Hirasawa’s house. Is he really going to say…?

“Coincidentally, I saw you stepping out of one of the houses, waving goodbye to some girl at the doorway. I think I recognized her, wasn’t she the same gal who came to pick you up at Yukinokawa last winter?” he asked me. I noticed some amusement in his tone.

I tried to keep my cool, and shrugged. “Yeah, the very same. What about it?”

“Are you two dating?” he asked me out of nowhere.

I stood up, clenching my fists. “Of course not! We’re just friends!”

This caused Tadaaki to burst into laughter. I looked at him confusedly for a few seconds, until I sat back down.

“Fuck off already,” I muttered, unamused.

“Relax, man. Can’t you take a joke?” Tadaaki said, still chuckling, and setting his coffee cup down on the table. He soon calmed down, and, with a more serious tone, said: “But seriously speaking, she looks cute and seems nice, so of course I’m wondering if you two would be dating.”

I thought about his words, and nodded.

However, Tadaaki grinned, and continued: “…especially if we consider your ponytail fetish.”

I quickly stood up, walked over to Tadaaki, and grabbed him by the collar. “I’m going to shove your head up your ass, fucker!”

And so began a ruthless wrestling match, accompanied by the rock music blasting from the stereos.

Our obscure scrimmage was interrupted by Ichiro. “What the hell is this? You guys want to be pro wrestlers or something?”

I let go of Tadaaki, and helped him on his feet. His scruffy face made me chuckle, and he also began to laugh. Meanwhile, Ichiro had poured himself a cup of coffee, and carried it over to the couches.

“Why were you both killing each other anyway?” he asked us.

I nervously glanced over at Tadaaki, who just shrugged. “This idiot thought he could beat me in a fight.”

So, Tadaaki was willing to keep secrets. Wonderful. I sat back down on the couch, and resumed sipping my coffee, while Ichiro was setting up a game console.

My phone’s alarm woke me up early in the morning. I had put my phone under my pillow, because I wanted to make sure that no one else would notice the alarm. It was 5:45 in the morning. This was because my mom would wake up at 6, and I didn’t really want anyone to catch me skipping school. Sure, it was a school day, but also the day Sakuragaoka holds a school festival, where Yui would perform with her club. I’d promised to be there, so that’s why I’m currently awake at an inhumane time.

I got dressed as quietly as I could, taking some money with me. There’ll definitely be food stalls at the festival, which will suit me just fine, since I’ll have to skip lunch. I hid my school uniform and bag in my closet, and sneaked downstairs. Being careful of not waking Dash up, I got my shoes on and stepped outside.

It was a bit chilly, and dawn was only just breaking. I dug out a directions sheet, which I had wrote last night, from my back pocket. According to it, Sakuragaoka was a few kilometers to the south, which would probably take half an hour to walk. I slipped my hands into my hoodie’s pockets and began making my journey. After ten minutes of walking, I recognized a certain building on the side of the road. It was my favorite café. I know the owner, since he lives in the same neighborhood as me. It opens up at 6 on weekdays, which was just perfect at my current situation. There’s no way I’ll survive much longer without coffee.

A bell above the door chimed as I stepped inside the café. The dark wood floor and dark green walls gave this place an amazing atmosphere. The walls were covered by numerous framed pictures telling the history of this café. There was a radio on top of the shop counter, which currently broadcasted early morning news. Currently, there were only couple of customers sitting at the tables, sipping coffee, and reading newspapers. Probably office workers or something.

I heard sounds coming from the kitchen, and soon a man appeared behind the counter. The man was 50-something-years old, wearing that same old fishing hat. Of course I recognized him, he’s the owner. And he seemed to recognize me.

“Eiji-kun? Up and about pretty early, huh?” he greeted me.

I ignored the latter part, and walked to the counter. “Morning, Nakamura-san. Just a cup of coffee, thanks.”

“Coming right up,” he said as he turned around to prepare the coffee, while I dug out the money out of my pocket and set it on the counter.

Soon I had a steaming cup of coffee in my hands. I decided to take a seat on one of the stools in front of the counter. As I sipped my coffee, Nakamura began sweeping the counter.

“So, are you going to tell me why you’re up this early?” he asked me.

He’s a trustworthy guy, so I guess I can tell him: “…you know Sakuragaoka?”

“Of course I do, my niece is a student there, after all. They’re holding a school festival today, if I remember correctly,” he said.

I gave him some time to think and connect the pieces. As he did that, he soon began to smile.

“Oh, you sly boy, you. Skipping school to visit an all-girls’ school’s festival, huh? Planning on meeting someone you know?”

I sipped my coffee, and shrugged. “Well, yes and no. You see, my friend’s sister is holding a music performance there, and I promised her I’d be there.”

“I see. Well, if you see my niece, tell her I said hi,” Nakamura said, and turned to serve a customer who had just walked in.

I gulped the coffee down, waved for a goodbye, and stepped back outside. I checked the directions sheet again, and began heading ‘200 meters south and then left’.

Quite a bit of walking later I stood in front of an old, white school. I was a bit confused, since I expected seeing hundreds of people roaming around its yard. Instead, there was nothing but empty stalls and cardboard boxes. I glanced at the school’s clock, and then at my wristwatch, both stating that it was a bit over 7 in the morning. God damn it, of course the festival wouldn’t start until later. Even the teachers haven’t come to work yet. Well, since I’m all the way here, I might as well have a look around.

I walked around the school’s yard, admiring different stalls, and peering into half-open boxes. Some minutes later I found myself standing in front of the school’s auditorium. A bulletin board stand of some sort was leaning against the closed doors, so out of curiosity, I turned it around. It had the auditorium’s schedule written on it. Hold on… Yui’s club won’t perform until 12 o’clock? Fuck, I’ll have to wait for five whole hours!

I took a step backwards. Five hours of waiting is five too many. There’s only one option for me: sleeping. I’ve got some sleep debt from my early waking, and I’ve been yawning the whole time. Maybe I’ll find some place to take a nap. I quickly examined the yard again, but didn’t find a single spot where I wouldn’t be found. So, I decided to check the school’s backyard, only to find a sports ground. Yeah, I’m not feeling like sleeping in the middle of a field, thank you. I thought about checking the school building for any unlocked doors or windows, but then again, I’d probably get into even more trouble if someone caught me there.

I let out a tired sigh as I circled the school from the other side. I passed by the school’s gymnasium, only giving it a quick glance. However, I halted as I spotted something strange: the gymnasium’s storage room’s door was ajar. Thoughts racing in my head, I wanted to just keep walking, but my tired legs had other plans as they carried me over to the storage room’s door. I carefully opened the door. After making sure no one was watching me, I slipped inside, closing the door behind me.

The storage room was pretty much what you would expect; it was filled with different kinds of balls, sticks, sports equipment, mattresses, indefinable sacks and bags, and a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The small windows provided enough lighting, so I didn’t have to turn on the lights. Still hesitating a bit, I carefully moved forwards to the back of the storage room, pushing myself into a small space between the wall and the storage carts. No one would notice me, even if they visited the storage room. It was also nice and cool, and the mattress under me was soft. A perfect place to take a nap, that’s for sure. I set my phone to alarm me a bit before Yui’s club’s performance, and laid down. Despite the situation I was currently in, I managed to fall asleep rather quickly.

“…and that goes on the shelf over there, right next to the hoops,” I heard someone saying.

I flinched awake, but my quick thinking stopped me from making too much noise: I was sleeping in another school’s storage room. Carefully, I peeked under the storage carts, and saw two pair of feet.

“Alright, only one sack left,” an unfamiliar girl’s voice stated, and they both disappeared through the doorway.

Recovering from the shock, I checked my watch: 10:50. I had woken up before the alarm, which I quickly turned off. I crawled out of the small space as carefully and quietly as I could, and slipped out of the storage room, quickly heading back to school’s yard. But things were different; it wasn’t quiet anymore. The festival had started, stalls were open, and hundreds of students and people were roaming around the school campus.

As I had over an hour of time to kill, I decided to walk around a bit, scoping out the stalls and activities. It quickly became clear that I was standing out like a sore thumb, since people my age should currently be at school. That’s why all the other visitors were mostly adults and young children. I glanced over at the school building, thought about it for a bit, and decided to check it out, too.

I walked through the lobby, and walked along the hallway, admiring the decorations, and glancing in different classrooms. However, a delicious aroma reached my nose, which reminded me of the fact I haven’t eaten anything today. Following the smell, I found a classroom that served fried noodles. On my right, the desks were arranged into dining tables, with few people enjoying their meals around them. And, on my left, I found the stalls where the noodles were prepared by the students. I walked over to one of the stalls, digging out my wallet and ordering one serving. She got it done pretty quickly, and I carried the plate over to a vacant table. I began enjoying my meal with a good appetite.

“Excuse me, do you mind if I sit here?” I heard some girl asking.

I swallowed the food in my mouth. “Go ahead.”

She sat down next to me, setting her plate down on the table. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that she’s a student. I was about to grab another mouthful of noodles, until I realized something, and turned to face her. That dark brown hair, that peculiar but cute hairstyle… there’s no mistaking it.

The girl smiled and cocked her head. “Hey, Eiji-kun! How are you?”

I knew her, she was Nakamura Yoshiko, the café owner’s niece. She works part-time in the café, which is why I’ve come to know her. She’s a year older than me, meaning that she’s a second grader in high school.

I didn’t even have time to answer, when she presented me with a new question: “What in the world are you doing here?”

I looked at her, thought for a while, and decided to tell her the same I had explained to her uncle.

“Oh, I didn’t know you had friends who go to school here. Who would’ve thought that you can be that social?” she said, and began eating her food.

But, to my misfortune, a smug grin appeared on her face. “I still remember the first time we met a few years ago. You were too shy to even glance at me.”

“Y-yeah, let’s just forget about that,” I muttered.

Yoshiko, however, was just getting started. She leaned closer, and whispered: “Of course I knew you were looking at me every time I walked past. But, you’re a boy, so it’s only natural.”

My face bright red, I nervously glanced around to make sure no one was listening to our conversation.

Yoshiko giggled and slapped me on the shoulder. “Relax, can’t you take a joke?”

Still a bit anxious, I decided to just concentrate on my fried noodles, and Yoshiko did the same. After finishing our meals, I glanced at my watch, and turned to Yoshiko.

“I’ve still got half an hour to spare. Want to have a look around?”

“Like a date?” she asked, clearly joking.

I’d had enough of her shit. “Yes or no?”

She shrugged. “Sure, why not. I’ve still got some time before my shift in my class’ manga café.”

So that’s what we did, roaming around the school campus side by side, checking out the stalls and trying out some games and activities. At one point, some students approached us, and asked me if I was ‘Nakamura-senpai’s’ boyfriend. Yoshiko just smiled and kept quiet, so I had to handle the situation and deny the claim. God damn you, Yoshiko… Despite that, I had fun.

Soon it was time for Yui’s club’s performance. I said my goodbyes to Yoshiko, and headed to the auditorium. Inside, it was dark, and all the benches were pretty full. Man, there must be at least three hundred people here. I tried scoping for a suitable seat, but soon gave up, and decided to just stand next to a wall.

“Next up, the Light Music Club”

The red curtain raised, and the audience clapped. I joined in the clapping out of formality. It was the first time I saw the members of the light music club. Their outfits were… a bit weird, but they still looked good. From my point of view, Yui was standing on the right, carrying her sunburst Les Paul. After the clapping died down, Yui said something to the nervous looking bassist, and the drummer and pianist joined her, clearly trying to calm the bassist down.

Hold on… have I met the bassist and the drummer somewhere before? They look kind of familiar… Ugh, I can’t put my finger on it.

The drummer set the beat by hitting the drumsticks together, and the song started.

♫ Oh, I pray to God, please, give some Dream Time for just the two of us! ♫

Shivers ran down my spine through the whole song. The bassist had a beautiful singing voice, but Yui’s voice seemed ruined, for some reason. Like she had tried to sing black metal for the past hour or something. Nevertheless, it was fucking amazing.

As the last chords rang out, it was quiet, but only for a few seconds: the audience began thunderously applauding, me with them. Skipping school was worth it, that’s for sure. It was the best god damn school performance I’ve ever heard. Yui and her club’s members all seemed very pleased with themselves, as they should be.

“Everybody, thank you!” the bassist shouted, and the applause just went on.

The club members stood up, bowing to the audience, and began leaving the stage. However, an ear-piercing sound rang out, almost as if a cord was plugged out of an amplifier: the bassist had tripped on a cord, and fell on her stomach. She was about to get on her feet, and the audience froze: something blue-and-white was visible on the stage. I double checked to make sure it actually was what I thought it was, and decided that now would be a good moment to make my leave.

Noooooo!” a young woman’s yell echoed in the auditorium as I quietly slipped through the doorway.

Chapter Text

As the weeks went by, the temperature dropped day by day, forcing me to wear my winter attire once again. Soon came December, the ending of the second semester drawing near.  During the past few months, I’ve kept in contact with Hirasawa almost weekly. I didn’t want her to be worried about me, like last summer. We mostly just messaged each other, but sometimes I paid a visit to Hirasawa residence. This was one of those occasions.

I had just stepped inside, and had followed Hirasawa upstairs to the living room. Their coffee table had been replaced by a kotatsu, which was only natural. I walked over to the kotatsu, taking a seat at my usual spot, and slipping my feet under the blanket, while Hirasawa headed to the kitchen to prepare some tea. Huh, now where might Yui be? I’d imagine her to be the first to laze around under the blanket…

“Ah, Sugimoto-kun, hello,” a voice next to me greeted.

Confused, I glanced down to my left, and flinched. It was Yui. She was completely under the kotatsu, and had poked her head out.

“It sure is cold outside,” she murmured as she slipped her head back under the blanket.

Hirasawa, who had noticed the situation from the kitchen, put her hands on her hips. “Sis, get out of there. You’re not a child anymore.”

Yui poked her head out, this time from the opposite side. “But Ui~, it’s cold out there.”

“Then you won’t get any snacks,” Hirasawa threatened, continuing on preparing the tea.

Yui slipped back under the blanket, and soon popped her head out right next to me, making me flinch once again.

“Sugimoto-kun~, Ui is being cruel…” she sniveled.

“You’re acting like I could influence the situation in any way…” I muttered.

Yui raised the blanket with her hand, a shine of confidence in her eyes. “You could slip under here, too. Then there would be two of us and only one of her.”

I put my hands behind my neck, leaning back and gazing out of the balcony door. “She’s still the one controlling the snacks.”

Yui seemed to understand this, and continued on pondering, clearly planning her next move. Meanwhile, Hirasawa got the tea done and carried the tray over to the kotatsu, setting it down in the middle, and taking a seat across from me. She raised the blanket, peeking under it.

“Sis, I made some hot chocolate for you,” she called out with a soothing voice.

A second later, Yui popped out of the kotatsu right next to Hirasawa, and quickly sat up. Man, Hirasawa really knows how her sister works. Yui reached over, grabbed the steaming cocoa mug from the platter, and took a careful sip. Her satisfied expression made me smirk.

As I was grabbing a cup of tea from the platter, Hirasawa asked her sister: “Are you going to tell him about it?”

“About what?” I asked.

Yui seemed to remember something. “Ah, about the Christmas party!”

“…the what?” I muttered, confused a bit.

“We’re hosting a Christmas party for my club members in a few days,” she explained. “Would you like to come too?”

I was about to sip my tea, but the question made me halt. “Me?”

Once again, I’d have to meet a bunch of unfamiliar teenage girls. Other than that, I was actually a bit interested. “Uh, well, what activities have you planned?”

“Well, apart from exchanging gifts, not much. But we’ll figure something out on the spot, it’ll be fun,” Yui explained, smiling all the way.

I sipped my tea and nodded. “Exchanging gifts, huh? Guess I should bring something.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything great or expensive, we’re doing it just for fun,” Hirasawa said, jumping into the conversation. “My sis and I will handle the food and decorations.”

Yeah, right. You’re just going to do everything by yourself, gal. Instead of saying the former out loud, I just nodded and sipped my tea.

Couple of days later, the night before the Christmas party, I was still awake, struggling with wrapping paper.

“Ugh, how the fuck do I… a-ha! There, perfect!”

I can’t remember the last time I’ve wrapped a present. Regardless, my work wasn’t half-bad. On my computer desk laid a small blue packet with a white ribbon. I carefully moved it aside, and swept all the debris off the desk straight into the trash bin. I glanced at my watch, which told me it was 3 o’clock at night. Man, I would be sleeping right about now, but I just happened to remember that I hadn’t wrapped the present yet, so I had to go digging around the storage room for wrapping paper, which took me a while. Well, now that it’s done, I can safely hit the hay.

I woke up at afternoon. After stretching for a bit and throwing some clothes on, I headed downstairs to make myself some late breakfast. After eating the meal, I returned to my room. Maybe I should play some games to pass the time until the Christmas party starts. I sat down at the desk, pressing the computer’s power button. As the computer was starting up, my phone began to vibrate. Hirasawa was calling me. Hm, some last minute changes to plans, maybe?

“Yeah?” I answered the call, simultaneously typing in my password on the keyboard.

“Um, I was just wondering where you are,” Hirasawa said.

“What are you talking about…?” I confusedly muttered as I finally got logged in.

I glanced at the computer’s clock. The party had started half an hour ago. I’d slept longer than I thought.

“…god damn it…”

I quickly stood up, and ran to the closet. “Sorry, I overslept! I’ll be right there,” I hastily said before ending the call.

I threw my red hoodie on my shoulders, slipping the small blue present into its pocket, and headed downstairs to get my coat and boots on. I began heading towards Hirasawa residence in a quick pace.

I leaned against Hirasawa’s mailbox, catching my breath. After my pulse finally returned to normal, I walked to the front door. I could faintly hear a group of girls conversing upstairs. Well, here goes nothing, I guess. I rang the doorbell, and the conversation died down immediately. I heard approaching steps, and, as I expected, Hirasawa answered the door.

“Hi, I was beginning to wonder where you were. Come on in,” she greeted, beckoning me to step inside, which I did.

After closing the door, I took off my coat and handed it to her. “Yeah, sorry that I’m late,” I apologized with a sheepish smile.

Hirasawa shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s nice that you were able to come in the first place.”

She escorted me up the stairs, and as I turned to face the living room, it felt like the whole world was staring at me.

From what I later heard, the following happened few minutes ago: Hirasawa, Yui, the spectacle-headed girl and the club members (their advisor included) were having a conversation around the kotatsu. The sound of the doorbell had confused everyone except for the Hirasawa sisters.

“Are you expecting more visitors?” the dark haired girl had asked Yui.

“Yeah, Ui’s friend is also coming over,” Yui had answered.

Everyone seemed to understand the situation, until Hirasawa let me inside, and I opened my mouth. The sound of my voice had caused more confusion.

The girl with a hairband had asked: “W-would this ‘Ui’s friend’ happen to be a girl by any change?”

“No, of course not. Why would he be?” Yui answered, confused about the question.

And then I had walked upstairs, which brings us back to the current situation.

I’d got myself into yet another staring competition. This time I was against three unfamiliar girls and a woman. Though, the girls weren’t that unfamiliar. I’ve seen them at the festival, after all. It still didn’t change the fact that this was an awkward and anxious moment. Four against one, completely unfair.

Yui, however, didn’t seem to care about the situation. “Sugimoto-kun! Merry Christmas!”

It helped me to come back to my senses. With hesitating steps, I slowly walked over to the kotatsu. Hirasawa, who was sitting next to her sister, scooched over to make some room for me, so I sat down next to her. At that moment, I noticed all the food and snacks on top of the kotatsu. Everything looked delicious, especially the roast turkey in the middle. Hirasawa poured me a glass of non-alcoholic champagne, setting it down in front of me. I just nodded for a thanks, since I was too anxious to say a word.

Gathering up some courage, I raised my gaze to the three girls sitting right across from me, all staring at me. Shit, better man up and defuse the situation by myself.

“Uh, hi,” I greeted them, trying to spark a conversation.

They didn’t answer, and the silence grew even more awkward. Maybe I should introduce myself?

“So, um, I’m Sugimoto. Sugimoto Eiji.”

Nope, they still kept quiet. Running out of ideas, I glanced over at Hirasawa, who was just spectating the situation. God damn it, what now…? Wait, I got it!

“I, uh, saw your performance at the festival couple of months ago. Honestly speaking, it was the best I’ve seen in a long time.”

They still kept quiet for a while, until the dark haired girl was the first one to speak: “…really?”

I nodded. “Yeah, of course. You were the one singing, right? It sounded great.”

“…did you see the whole performance?” she asked.

Now why the hell would she be asking something like tha— …oh, yeah, the blue-and-white thing…

I quickly came up with a lie: “U-uh, pretty much, but since I was in a hurry, I had to leave right after the song was over. Why, was there some kind of an extra?”

“E-eh? N-no, not at all, j-just asking,” the girl muttered, trying to hide her blush. Yes, another successful lie!

Now that the ice was broken, I could conversate more; “Yui-san has already told me about you guys, but just to double-check… Akiyama-san, Tainaka-san, and Kotobuki-san, correct?”

The girls gave me approving nods and answers. So, the dark haired girl was Akiyama Mio, the girl with the hairband was Tainaka Ritsu, and the blonde girl was Kotobuki Tsumugi. These three girls played that awesome song with Yui. Though… there’s still something bugging me about Akiyama and Tainaka… Urgh, it’s right on the tip of my tongue…

“What about me?” the woman sitting next to me asked, cutting my thought process short. God damn it, I was just about to figure it out!

I glanced at her. “What? What about you?”

She had long, brown hair. She was wearing glasses, and was maybe in her late twenties. Yeah, no, I don’t recognize her. Should I?

“I’m Sawako, their club’s advisor,” she introduced herself, a bit offended.

I was about to say something approving, until I felt Yui tapping my shoulder, so I leaned closer to her.

“Don’t let her appearance fool you,” she whispered to me. Whatever she meant by that, I’ll keep it in mind.

Tainaka jumped enthusiastically on her feet. “All right! Now that everyone has got to know each other, let’s exchange presents!”

“Yeah!” Yui yelled.

Should I yell something too? FUCK YEAH, BITCHES! I imagined a scenario where I would shout something like that, and almost burst into laughter.

Sawako dug out a present. “I also brought one. I was originally going to give it to my boyfriend…” I… feel unsafe, like she’s going to snap at any minute.

“Alright then, let’s begin!” she announced, and made some room on top of the kotatsu by pushing all of its contents aside.

Following the others, I also placed my present on the empty space. It was a lot smaller than the other presents. Sawako instructed us to keep passing the presents from one to another until she would stop singing. Her singing voice was… well, let’s just say that I’d bet 1000 yens that she has been in a heavy metal band.

“STOP!” she suddenly yelled. It was almost as if the whole group was sighing out of relief.

Without waiting any further, Sawako tore her present open. It was some kind of a red box… No, it was a Jack-in-the-box, which struck her right in the forehead. Everyone fell silent, cold sweat dripping from their faces.

“…I’m going home” I muttered, sensing danger.

Hirasawa, however, grabbed me by the wrist. I thought she was trying to prevent me from leaving, but actually she was clinging on to me out of fear. Can’t blame her.

“This is the best Christmas ever!” she shouted, accompanied by a psychotic laugh.

Now I really felt like escaping…

After the situation was over, others began opening their presents. I was watching their doings, until I noticed that Akiyama had gotten my present. Inside was a small, black velvet jewelry box. Opening the box, her eyes were met with a beautiful, shining bracelet. She was looking at it in awe.

Tainaka glanced at the box, flinched, and turned to face me. “Wasn’t that from you? W-what in the world did you pay for it!?”

I shrugged. “Nothing, I got it from my sister.”

It was the truth. I knew all the other party guests would be girls, and girls like jewelries, don’t they? So, I had asked my sister if she had anything to spare. Luckily, she didn’t ask any questions, and gave me that velvet box.

“From your sister, huh?” Akiyama muttered, taking the bracelet out of the box.

She rolled up her left sleeve and put the bracelet on, admiring it from different angles. “It’s pretty.”

I looked at her for a bit, and finally decided to open the flat present I’d been fiddling with for a while. It was a CD case: Meta Meta – Ultimate Album From Hell. Damn, I’ve actually been looking to buy this for a while.

“That one’s mine,” Sawako noted.

I couldn’t help but smirk. “Lady, you’ve got a great taste for music.”

“Hold on, you were going to give that to your boyfriend?” Yui asked, pointing at the case.

After a few seconds of distressing silence, Sawako burst into tears: “Yes, you got a problem with that!?”

“…I’m going home,” I muttered, having just about enough of this shit.

“Wait, we haven’t opened our presents yet,” Yui said, meaning herself and her sister. Well, I guess I’ll stay for a bit longer…

Hirasawa got a scarf, and Yui got a pair of gloves. From what I could pick up from their conversation, both of them were respectively lacking those things beforehand, and had bought them for each other. Though, it was a miracle the presents happened to find their ways to the right people… Well, whatever, their reactions still brought a smile on my face.

With the present exchange done, Tainaka once again stood up. “Next up, everyone will do a short performance!”

“A what now…?” I muttered, and turned to face Hirasawa.

“Ah, I forgot to tell you about it!” she said in a panic.

“Calm down, Ui-chan, they’re not that big of a deal…” Tainaka muttered with a sorry smile.

Hirasawa, however, was still looking worried. I sighed, and turned to face her. “Relax. I’ll come up with something, you guys can go ahead.”

Hirasawa went first. She put on a small ventriloquist act with hand dolls. What the hell, when did she learn to do that? Next up was Yui, who realized she hadn’t prepared anything, so she jumped on her feet.

“Air guitar!” she yelled, playing an invisible guitar.

Tainaka joined her. “Air drums!”

Yeah, now I get why she said earlier that this wasn’t a big deal. So why was Hirasawa sweating about it so much? Next up was Akiyama. She disappeared downstairs, and soon came back, wearing a (very) short Santa dress. Clearly embarrassed, she ran back downstairs. A quick glance was enough for me, and I turned my gaze to the ceiling. That’s an image I won’t be forgetting any time soon…

Then, it was Kotobuki’s turn. “I’m imitating something!”

She imitated… something. Impaled head, perhaps? I decided not to say anything, my mindset being too gruesome for these ladies. Apparently, it was a sunfish. What even is a sunfish?

Sawako stood up. “Alright, next up—!”

The lifted her shirt, exposing her stomach, slapping it with her palm. The mark turned bright red.

“—maple leaf!”

“…I’m going home,” I muttered.

“That joke is getting old,” Tainaka muttered back, unamused.

“I’m not joking, my sanity is at stake here!” I retorted, accidentally making the group chuckle.

I looked at them for a few seconds, and laid down on the floor, my hands behind my neck.

“Have you come up with anything?” Hirasawa asked me.

“…no,” I murmured, staring at the ceiling.

Yui jumped on her feet. “Wait here!” she commanded, before running upstairs.

I think I knew what she had on her mind. Well, it’s better than nothing, I guess. My first public show, oh boy, can’t wait… Hold on, I can feel something on my stomach. I glanced downwards to check it, and… it was Hirasawa’s hand. She was massaging my stomach.

Trying my best to keep my cool, I glanced at her. “…what are you doing?”

Hirasawa finally seemed to notice the situation, and quickly pulled her hand away. “Oh, um, uh…”

We both blushed. All the other girls staring at us didn’t help at all.

“I-I’ve always done this to my sis, so I unintentionally…” she muttered in a low voice, clearly embarrassed. I wasn’t sure what to think.

The girls around the table kept glancing at each other, until Tainaka decided to open her mouth: “So, um, how long have you two been dating?”

Quickly sitting up, Hirasawa and I yelled in unison: “We’re not dating!”

“I… see…” Tainaka muttered, confused a bit.

Yui returned downstairs, carrying her Les Paul, as I had guessed.

“Play something!” she said, handing the guitar over to me.

“Uh, right…” I muttered, taking the guitar.

Checking the tune, I decided to play a guitar solo from one of my favorite metal albums. It was a bit complex, but somehow I managed to play it without messing up, despite being a bit nervous due to all the people watching me. I felt quite proud of myself. After the solo was over, I glanced over at my ‘audience’, who started clapping sincerely.

“Eh, it sounds better with an amplifier…” I murmured, a sheepish smile on my face.

We spent the next hours eating, chatting, and playing games. Though, most of the time I just stayed quiet, since I didn’t have anything to contribute to their discussions. Despite that, I enjoyed myself. As the sun set, it was time for us to head home. The Hirasawa sisters escorted us outside, where we said our goodbyes, and began heading home. Since I didn’t really feel like walking with the rest of the group, I decided to take a slight detour.

As I walked through the darkened streets, I noticed something, and halted. I glanced upwards: it was snowing. The light of the streetlamps reflected from the small snowflakes, making them shine beautifully. It was like this town was showered with diamonds. I felt blessed. Once again, I had met new, nice people today. Though, I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Where has my depression gone? Why can I suddenly smile genuinely? Why me, and not someone else? Someone, who has done only good in their life, and not me, who has only hurt people. I stared at the snowfall for a while, until I slapped myself in the face, and resumed walking. I’ve got to stop being so pessimistic. I’ve been blessed with these wonderful people, so instead of questioning it, I should just embrace it. Easier said than done, but I’ll try.

Chapter Text

“Big brother, wake up. Please, wake up,” a small, cute voice called me.

I slowly opened my sleepy eyes, and found my sister, Tamiko, standing next to my bed.

“Whaaaat…” I murmured, almost growling.

Tamiko put her hands on her hips. “You promised you would accompany me to the school today.”

Due to my sleepiness, I had trouble thinking. “…the hell are you talking about? School doesn’t start in days.”

“I meant Sakuragaoka. They put up the accepted students board today, remember? You yourself said that you’d accompany me there,” she explained.

“Ah, that…” I muttered, finally remembering the promise. However, I just turned my head away from her, pulling the blanket over my head. “I’m still sleepy, so let’s go in a few hours… or tomorrow…”

I could hear Tamiko mumbling something out of annoyance, until she stopped. Finally, I can resume sleeping…

“…Ecchan.

Snapping awake, I quickly sat up, kicking the blanket off of me. “I told you to not call me by that name!”

“Well, at least you’re finally awake,” she noted with a satisfied smile. “Get dressed up and come downstairs, we’ll be going by train.”

After she left my room, it took me a few seconds to recover from the idea that she had outdone me. But, I just hate that nickname so much… well, whatever, I’ll get my revenge someday. After stretching a bit, I threw on some clothes, including my red hoodie, and moseyed downstairs to my sister, who was wearing her junior high uniform. She practically forced me to gulp my coffee down in under a minute, and we headed off to the train station. Why buy alarm clocks, when you have a little sister?

So yeah, I had promised that I’d accompany Tamiko to Sakuragaoka. I don’t even know why. Maybe I wanted to be a good big brother, or maybe I wanted to scope out some schoolgirls. Or maybe I thought I’d bump into someone I know. In any case, for the longest time I thought that Tamiko would apply to Kasumimashita, like her two older brothers. But no; apparently, ever since elementary school, she had planned on applying to Sakuragaoka. However, she’s not the only girl I know who has applied to that school.

Moments later the train arrived at our stop, and we continued the journey on foot. I began recognizing places from my festival visit last year, and soon we stood in front of the white building of Sakuragaoka. The many cherry blossoms on the yard were blooming, which was actually quite a pretty sight. Guess that’s where the school’s name comes from. Dozens of schoolgirls from many different junior high schools were roaming around the campus. And, as expected, there wasn’t any other 16-year-old guys. I felt vulnerable. We walked to the front of the auditorium, where the accepted students board was located.

“I… I got in! Big brother, I got in!” Tamiko rejoiced as she spotted her name on the list.

I smirked, patting her on the head. “Congratulations, nice to know that at least one Sugimoto isn’t an idiot.”

“Hasn’t it always been obvious?” Tamiko quipped.

She spotted some of her schoolmates further away from us, so she gave me the permission to go back home, and ran to her friends. Slipping my hands into my hoodie’s pockets, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched my skittering little sister. So many years we’ve attended the same schools, until now. Well, I don’t think she’ll have any problems in Sakuragaoka. At least I hope so. Out of curiosity, I turned to check the list out once more, reading it more thoroughly. Wait a minute… That’s…

“Sugimoto-kun? What are you doing here?” I heard a familiar voice right behind me.

I turned around and found Hirasawa standing there, dressed in her junior high uniform. She cocked her head confusedly, still waiting for an answer.

“Oh? Uh, well, I just accompanied my sister here,” I explained.

Hirasawa just got even more confused. “Your sister applied here?”

I nodded, and pointed my thumb towards the board behind me. “Yeah, and she actually got in.”

Understanding the situation, Hirasawa began scoping the board out herself. After a few seconds, I saw a flash of joy in her eyes.

“I got in, too!”

I, of course, had spotted her name earlier, but still decided to act surprised. “Well, would you look at that. Congratulations to you, too.”

After thinking for a couple of seconds, I decided to point at a group of girls further away. “By the way, my sister is that light haired gal, in case you want to get to know her.”

Hirasawa gazed at my sister, a bit puzzled. “How come she looks so European?”

“Ah, our mother’s mother is from Northern Europe, so we have some European genes. It seems that my sister has inherited most of them,” I explained as I turned to look at Tamiko, who had her back turned to us.

After looking at her for a bit, I turned back to Hirasawa. “I’m sure you’ll be friends. She’s nice and kind, just like you.” I quickly realized what I had just said and wanted to reword the latter part of my sentence, but then decided to just it be.

“Thank you,” Hirasawa said with a warm smile.

“Ui!” another familiar voice could be heard.

We turned to face the voice. It was Yui, who was a nervous wreck, almost shaking in her boots.

“Why are you so nervous?” Hirasawa asked her. ‘Nervous’ was a complete understatement. “My name is there. I passed.”

Yui flinched. “R-really?”

Her expression turned exited… and a second later tears started dripping from her eyes. I had to take a step back as she ran to hug her little sister.

“Sis, I can’t breathe…” Hirasawa muttered, smiling embarrassedly.

As Yui started congratulating her sister and thanking everyone around us, I couldn’t help but feel a little concerned. “Now she’s lost it…”

However, both of them looked so happy that I decided to give up on the witty remarks and just smile. A sound of camera shutter made me turn my gaze. It was the members of Yui’s club; Tainaka, Kotobuki, and Akiyama, the latter holding a camera. Wait, did I just get into a photo? They walked to us, each giving Hirasawa their congratulations. However, they soon noticed me, too.

“Wait, what’s this guy doing here?” Tainaka asked, taken aback due to my presence.

I frowned, unamused. “I have a name, you know…”

“Yeah, why are you here, Sugimoto-kun?” Yui asked me, finally letting go of her sister. Don’t tell me she didn’t notice me from the very beginning…

Before I could even open my mouth, Hirasawa explained to them what I had told her.

“You mean the sister who gave you this bracelet?” Akiyama asked, raising her left wrist with the aforementioned thing around it.

I nodded. “The very same. Nice to see that you like it.”

Startled a bit, she hid her left hand behind her back, blushing a bit. So, she’s as easily embarrassed as she was at the Christmas party, huh. Gal, at least let me take you out for a dinner before you start acting like that… I noticed Tainaka glancing at both Hirasawa and I.

She scratched her head, puzzled. “Seriously, are you two sure you’re not da—"

“We’re not dating!” Hirasawa and I yelled in unison, getting a few confused looks from the people around us.

“Alright, got it…” Tainaka muttered, backing down.

Since they clearly had their own plans for the day, I decided to say my goodbyes and head back home. Maybe I’ll try to catch some sleep.

A week later, the school had already begun. I had entered my second year in high school. Man, a year sure went by fast. Hopefully these two years will be just as swift. Speaking of swift, I was running to school after sleeping through the alarm. It was already lunch break by the time I got to school. Stopping by the cafeteria to buy myself a sandwich, I headed to the basement, and stepped into the club room.

“Morning,” I greeted my friends, breathing a bit heavily.

“It’s noon,” Tadaaki quipped from the couch, a game controller in his hands.

“Fuck you,” I answered as I threw my schoolbag in the corner.

I headed to the kitchen area, where a freshly made pot of coffee was waiting for me. Wonderful. As I was pouring myself a cupful, I noticed something, and turned around.

“Hold on, where’s Ichiro?”

Tadaaki kept his eyes on his video game. “He left just as the lunch break started. He didn’t feel like wasting his Friday afternoon at school.”

He kept playing for a while, until he paused the game and turned around to face me. “Actually, I think I’ll do the same. I didn’t catch much sleep last night, you see.”

“Why don’t you just sleep through the classes? It’ll count as attendance,” I suggested, carrying the coffee cup over to the couches, and taking a seat.

“Don’t you remember? The next class is chemistry,” he reminded me.

I grimaced. “Oh, yeah. The chemistry teacher is a real asshole. I still remember the time he caught one of our classmates dozing off…”

Tadaaki nodded. “That’s exactly why. I’d stay here, but as you know, the basement is off-limits during classes.”

“Well, suit yourself. I guess I can handle a few hours of school without you clowns,” I said with a shrug, and tore open the plastic around the sandwich.

As the lunch break ended, Tadaaki went home, while I headed to the class. Sure, it’ll be a bit boring without those two, and the chemistry teacher is a fucknut, but I still like chemistry. Well, at least the half of it.

“…what?” I muttered to my classmate.

“I said that we won’t be doing any experiments today, we’ll just be studying theory,” he repeated himself.

With a sigh, I muttered: “Thanks for the warning.” I turned around, and left the classroom.

Well, there goes that chemistry class. I don’t really care for studying from a book, especially when there’s a better alternative, like mixing chemicals and such. So, where to now? I can’t go home. My mother was really angry when she found me sleeping through the morning classes, so I don’t even want to imagine what she’s do to me if I came back home now. I didn’t really feel like wasting my time around the town, either. I guess there’s only one option left. I began heading towards the third floor of the west wing.

Whoever designed this school completely overestimated the amount of students that would attend here. Most of the classes were held in the east wing, while only a few were at the lower floors of the west wing. The rest of the classrooms are used as club rooms and storage rooms. Actually, I don’t think there’s any “normal” classrooms on the third floor of the west wing. It suited me just fine, since no one would catch me here.

I walked to the end of the hallway, and slid a door open, stepping inside the dark room. After finding the light switch, I turned on the lights, closing the door behind me. Room’s windows were covered by mountains of cardboard boxes and shelves filled with god knows what. I guess you could call this place a ‘redundant storage’. It was filled with stuff that didn’t have a place in the official storage rooms and such. It was a perfect hiding place, since no one had any reason to come here. I found this place last winter, when I was roaming around the school’s hallways out of boredom.

Most of the time I go through the contents of the boxes. I’ve found old photo albums, logbooks, classroom diaries and what not. Did you know that half a dozen students were temporarily expelled for having a chair fight? I’ve also found an old CRT TV, a VCR player, and a cassette player. With these, I could not only read, but also watch and listen about my school’s history, which is actually more interesting than it sounds. However, right now I didn’t feel like examining anything. I just wanted to take a nap. For that purpose, there’s an old, broken gym mattress right behind one of the shelves. I turned off the lights, waited for a while until my eyes got adjusted to the darkness, and walked around a shelf to the mattress. Taking my uniform’s coat off, I laid down with a yawn. After a bit, I finally drifted off.

Snow… I’ve only seen this much snow when I visited my father’s hometown up north. But this wasn’t my father’s hometown. Instead of beautiful fields and tall mountains, there was nothing. I didn’t see anything beyond my own nose. And the snow just kept coming, I was ancles deep in it. However, I didn’t feel cold, but anxious. I was alone. I began walking with heavy steps, until I realized that my feet passed through the snow as if it was nothing but air. After some walking, I started hearing humming. I kept going through the white apocalypse, trying to make sense of the humming. Almost as if it was very dampened music, or singing, perhaps. I looked up towards the white sky, where the snow was falling from. However, one of the snowflakes was green. Or maybe it wasn’t a snowflake, but something else. I wonder if I could catch it…? However, I suddenly stepped on nothing, dripping over, and falling through the whiteness.

Something blinded me. Fucking noobs can’t use flashbangs properly. However, as I carefully opened my eyes, I realized the situation: someone had turned on the lights. I squinted to cover my vision from the blinding light, which soon was covered by a silhouette of a person, followed by a familiar feminine voice.

“Good morning, Sugimoto-san.”

The figure stooped towards me with her hands on her hips. Now I could recognize that black, almost grayish hair.

“Well? Are you awake, or what?” she continued.

“Yeah, yeah. Get out of my way,” I muttered in a sleepy voice, and sat up.

I could see a bit better now. The girl was Hironaka, the representative of my fellow class, and a star member of the Athletics Club. I’ve known her for some time, and let’s just say that we don’t see eye to eye about anything. I kept glancing at her for a while, until my gaze drifted to her skirt. I was a bit curious, yes, but I didn’t feel like getting kicked in the face, so I quickly turned my head the other way, and stood up.

“You know, this is the third time I’ve caught you sleeping. How long have you been here, anyway?” she asked me with a frustrated sigh.

I checked my watch, which told me that the classes had ended half an hour ago. God damn, I really got to start setting up alarms for my naps.

“Since the lunch break.”

Hironaka sighed again, and became serious. “I could report you to the teachers anytime, you know.”

“So, why won’t you do it?” I asked her, raising an eyebrow.

“Because I’ve known you since junior high. It wouldn’t change a thing, you would just pretend to listen to their scolds and find another place to nap during classes,” she muttered.

I smiled and crouched down to grab my coat and schoolbag. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks for keeping me safe.”

I walked past her and around the shelf towards the door, and I could hear her sighing once again. “You’re hopeless, Sugimoto-san…”

I couldn’t help but snicker as I slid the door open. However, my laughing was cut short when I realized that the door didn’t open.

“…what?”

I tried again, but to no effort. What the hell is going on here? Hearing my struggling, Hironaka peeked from behind the shelf with a confused expression. I demonstrated the situation to her by trying to open the door, which refused to do so.

“Why did you come here, anyway?” I asked her.

“I was asked to bring a box here,” she answered.

Keeping quiet of a bit, I kept my eyes on the door, and nervously asked: “Were you alone? Does anyone know that we’re here?”

I glanced over my shoulder at Hironaka, who finally seemed to understand the situation. “…n-no. A teacher gave me this task, after which she left the building.”

I kept glancing at her for a while, until I resumed struggling with the door. As it still didn’t want to open, I took a step back and kicked it out of frustration.

“Why the hell did you even lock this!?”

Hironaka tried her best to keep her cool. “As you probably know, these classrooms haven’t seen much use. That’s why the doors are still as old as the school itself, meaning that you can’t open the lock from the inside. Their locks are also very unstable.”

I didn’t understand the point of her documentary, until she highlighted the latter sentence. “So, I… I guess I might’ve slammed the door shut too hard when I spotted you sleeping here…”

Oh, so I’m stuck here, huh? Wonderful, simply amazing. I turned back towards the door, breathing heavily, and clenching my fists.

“Fuck!” I cried as I gave the door another kick. Nope, it still didn’t budge.

What a shitty situation. Since we were at the third floor, windows were out of option. I also couldn’t call my friends over to help us, since Tadaaki was probably sleeping and Ichiro was most likely jerking off or something. I completely lost my self-control. I really wanted to punch something. I turned around, and immediately found a suitable target. I took couple of steps forward, and threw my fist.

The cardboard box rumbled off the shelf, decorated with a dent left by my fist. Phew, that felt good… However, I soon noticed Hironaka, who had crouched down, and was covering her head with her hands. It was almost as if she was shaking out of fear. Realizing what my temperament had caused, I crouched down, facing her.

“Hey…” I tried calling her.

She glanced at me from the corner of her teary eye, so I continued: “…you thought I was going to punch you?”

“…it’s… you’re just… that kind of person, you know…” she answered in a low voice, sniveling a bit.

Still keeping my voice soothing, I asked her: “What do you mean?”

“…I’ve seen you fighting people, many times. Almost every time they start out of nowhere. It’s very scary to watch…” she explained, keeping her eyes on the ground.

So, despite of her cool-headed and responsible nature, I still manage to scare her. To be honest, I felt kind of bad about it. As slowly and carefully as I could, I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Listen, Hironaka, that’s in the past. I’ve changed. Maybe I was like that due to the people in Yukinokawa or something, but not anymore.”

Hironaka slowly raised her gaze from the floor towards me. Ugh, I don’t even know why I felt like explaining myself to her. Maybe I wanted to get rid of the stigma of being a violent delinquent. I mean, I still am one a bit, but not as much as in junior high.

As she seemed to calm down a bit, I took my hand off her shoulder and stood up. “Let’s talk about this later, after someone let’s us out of this god damn room.”

As I finished my sentence, I heard a jingling of a keyring from the other side of the door, which soon slid right open. On the other side was the school’s janitor.

“Well now, I thought I heard some ruckus from here. You’ve got to be careful with these old doors,” he said, and stood aside. “Come on, then. Get going.”

Hironaka and I glanced at each other. Thanking the janitor, we left the room and began heading towards the lobby.

“Listen, Sugimoto-san…” Hironaka said.

“Yeah?”

She glared at me, clearly annoyed. “Never touch me again.”

I just smirked at her, which caused her to become even more annoyed. As we got to the lobby, I headed to the shoe lockers, while she continued on to the east wing, probably to retrieve her schoolbag. I didn’t plan on waiting for her, so I changed my shoes, and began heading home.

…I wonder how Tamiko is doing…?

I was in the middle of writing notes when the bell rang, ending the school day. Sakuragaoka was everything that I was hoping for. It also seemed a lot calmer than my previous schools. I’ve only been here a week, and already gotten used to this place. But, to my misfortune, a lot of my friends had gone to other schools. And those few who study here are in other classes. I can’t even walk home with them, since they have club activities after school. And I haven’t found a club that I’d me interested in. I still have the club pamphlets under my desk. I’ve read them through many times, but nothing really interests me.

With a sigh, I started packing my bag. I stood up, grabbing my bag, and glancing once more at the cherry blossoms outside the window.

“Excuse me? Are you Sugimoto?”

Taken aback a bit, I turned around to face the voice. It was one of my classmates. Her brown hair was tied into a ponytail, or something resembling it. She cocked her head, still waiting for an answer.

“Uh, yes, I am,” I answered, a bit puzzled.

The girl smiled, and introduced herself: “I’m Hirasawa Ui.”

For the sake of good manners, I did the same, despite being a bit confused: “Sugimoto Tamiko. Uh, how do you know my name?”

“Your brother told me. He thought that you and I could get acquainted.”

Now, I was even more confused. “Eiji-chan told you? How do you know him?”

“We’ve been friends for over a year. Hasn’t he told about me?” she asked, being as confused as I am.

I slowly shook my head. “No, not at all. I have no idea about who you are.”

“O-oh, is that so…” she muttered, looking a bit awkward.

However, she brightened up quickly, and asked: “Ah, I almost forgot. Would you like to walk home together?”

“Well, I travel by train,” I told her.

“The station is along my route to home. We could walk there, if you don’t mind,” she suggested.

I thought about it for a moment. For a whole week, I’ve been going home alone. It had left me feeling a bit lonely. It wouldn’t hurt to make new friends, especially when they are in the same class.

I nodded with a smile. “Okay, fine by me.”

We exited the classroom, and after stopping by the shoe lockers, we began walking towards the train station. I glanced up towards a partly clouded sky. What a fine Friday afternoon.

After walking for a bit, I asked: “So, what do you think about my brother?”

“Oh, um…” Ui muttered, glancing upwards while thinking. The pause felt kind of nervous.

Finally, she continued: “Well, he’s a nice person, and… uh…” Clearly, she didn’t manage to come up with anything else.

 “That’s all?” I asked her.

“Y-yes, eheh…” she said, laughing sheepishly.

“Well, why is he a nice person?” I presented her with another question.

“Uh, well… I’m not even sure. He just is,” she muttered. She soon turned to face me. “What’s he like to you?”

I had already prepared for that question: “As you mentioned, Eiji-chan is a nice person. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but he also has his darker side. He has… should I say, a problem controlling his anger. He also has a nasty mouth, though he tries his best to control it. I… I’m not sure if I should tell you, but… he’s a bit of a delinquent.”

I glanced at Ui, who kept quiet, listening to every word. Since she didn’t say anything, I continued: “You said you and he have been friends for over a year? Back then, Eiji-chan was living the most difficult moments of his life. He was constantly in trouble, and was almost kicked out of the school. But, for some reason, he calmed down a bit during winter.”

I once again glanced at Ui, who seemed surprised. So, she actually didn’t know these things about my brother? I wonder if I should’ve even told her those…

As I looked at her, I remembered something: “Back when he and I were in junior high, I heard a rumor about two girls from another school coming to pick him up. I assume one of those girls was you?”

She nodded slightly.

“Who was the other one?”

“Oh, she’s Suzuki Jun, she’s actually in our class. Um, I guess her name doesn’t ring any bells, does it?” she asked.

I shook my head. “No, not at all. Eiji-chan doesn’t really talk about his doings. Although, one thing has bothered me for the past year. Usually, when he goes out to hang out with friends, he always mentions their names. But, for some reason, he sometimes doesn’t. When I try to ask him about it, he just says that ‘I wouldn’t know them’.”

I turned to face Ui. “That friend is you, right?”

“U-uh, I guess… I hope it doesn’t bother you,” she said, a bit unsurely.

“No, of course not. Actually, I think it’s because of you that he has begun to calm down,” I said with a smile.

This caused Ui to blush a bit, which made me smile even more.

However, I quickly became serious. “I… I hope this conversation hasn’t changed your opinion about Eiji-chan.”

“Huh? No, not at all. To be honest, I’ve been a bit worried about him sometimes, but I guess I shouldn’t be, since he has such a caring little sister,” she explained, and it was my turn to blush.

At the end of the day, I had made a new friend. Even though Eiji and I don’t go to the same school anymore, he still somehow managed to help me. My brother sure is hopeless, but very thoughtful at the same time.

Chapter Text

I knocked on Tamiko’s door. “Hey, I got it fixed!”

Her desk fan suddenly decided to stop working, during the summer vacation of all times. For some reason, she thought that I might be able to fix it. Well, since she asked so nicely, I couldn’t refuse. All this morning I’ve done nothing but tried to get it in working order. It was a bit frustrating, and at one point I wondered what would happen if I smashed it against the corner of my desk. However, I soon found the problem, and got it working.

The door opened, and my sister, who clearly was suffering from the heat, took the fan, thanking me all the way until she closed the door. Job well done, I guess. But man, it sure was hot. I wiped my forehead with the hem of my shirt, and returned to my room. As I took a seat on the computer chair, I glanced over to the corner, where my schoolbag laid, gathering dust. The summer vacation started couple of days ago. I’m not going to waste it like the previous one, I’m going to mess around with my friends. Speaking of which, I wonder if they’d like to go out for a soda. I grabbed my phone, and started browsing the contact list.

However, one name caught my eye: Hirasawa Ui. I stared at the phone’s screen for moment, and decided to forget my earlier idea. I sent her a short message.

“Mind if I come over?”

Half a minute passed until my phone let out a message tone, and I checked Hirasawa’s answer: “Not at all. I’m not at home right now, but you can keep my sister company until I come back.”

Without wasting any time, I grabbed my red hoodie, headed downstairs to get my shoes on, and began walking along the path I’ve walked for over a year now. As always, it took me half an hour to reach the Hirasawa residence. Man, even though it’s hot, my hoodie still doesn’t seem to bother me, even though it’s nice and warm during winters. What kind of magic fabric is it made of? I walked to the front door, and rang the doorbell. I waited for a whole minute, but nobody answered. I decided to ring it again, and this time I heard some unintelligible shout. Was that Yui? I decided to be blunt and walk straight in.

As I was taking off my shoes, I heard another shout, this time more understandable: “I’m up here…”

Confused a bit, I began climbing the stairs. When I got to the living room, I was met with Yui, who was torpidly laying on the living room floor. The coffee table had been set aside.

She slowly raised her head, and mumbled: “Oh, it’s you, Sugimoto-kun. Welcome…” After the greeting, she lowered her head back against the floor, clearly not planning on moving.

I walked right next to her, staring at her from above. “So, you didn’t even know that it was I who was at the door?”

“Eh, I guess not…” she mumbled, staring back at me with half-open eyes.

I crouched down a bit. “What if it hadn’t been me, but some burglar, who wouldn’t leave any witnesses?”

She seemed to think about my words, but the goofy smile soon returned on her face. “There’s nothing to steal here…”

Once again, I crouched a bit closer. “What about your guitar?”

Yui frowned a bit. “Why would anyone steal Giita…?”

I crouched even closer, now there being only a small gap between our faces. Though, I didn’t come up with anything more to say, so I just kept glaring at her with stern expression, as she was looking back at me, a bit confused. However, her lazy expression made me smirk, and I finally took a step back.

“By the way, where did your sister go?” I asked her.

Yui kept her gaze at the ceiling. “She said she went out with a friend…”

I answered with an approving nod.

“There’s soda can in the fridge, you can take one if you want… actually, bring me one, too…” she muttered.

“As you wish, Yui-sama,” I stated in a butler-like voice and headed to the kitchen, grabbing two cans of soda.

Returning to the living room, I handed the other one over to Yui, who immediately pressed it against her check, letting out satisfied sounds. I looked around, and then at Yui. After thinking for a bit, I circled her, and joined her in laying on the floor. It actually felt kind of refreshing to just lay on the cool floor. After opening the can and taking a sip, I began staring at the ceiling. It was an activity I’m far too familiar with, but it never gets old. After ten minutes or so, I had already finished my soda, and continued on lazing around on the floor, my hands behind my neck, listening to the singing of cicada.

“How are you doing these days…?” Yui muttered next to me.

I turned to look at her, as she kept staring at the ceiling. “Why you ask?”

“…it’s too quiet, I wanted to talk…”

I kept looking at her for a while, and turned my gaze back to the ceiling. “I’m doing good, I guess.”

“Oh, is that so…” she muttered approvingly.

I guess the conversating was done, since the silence returned once again, as we both continued on looking at the ceiling. Out of nowhere, Yui moved her hand, and pulled out a pink hand fan from under her, beginning fanning herself with it. The silence was just getting to its best part, but the sound of the front door interrupted it.

“I’m home!” a familiar voice announced.

“That must be Ui…” Yui muttered.

I could hear her climbing the stairs up, but soon started hearing more steps. Did she bring someone with her? My reckoning lasted only a few seconds, until Hirasawa appeared upstairs, two other girls following right behind her. I recognized the other one; she was Tainaka. But the other one, with black hair tied into long pigtails, was a complete stranger to me.

“Sis, Ritsu-sun and Azusa-chan are also here,” Hirasawa began talking, but fell quiet as she saw us just lazily laying on the floor.

“Welcome home~”, Yui muttered out a greeting.

It was quiet, the awkward kind of quiet. I had enough of it, so I sat up, raising my hand.

“Yo.”

The two girls behind Hirasawa kept staring at me confusedly, the other one even more so than Tainaka.

“You again!?” Tainaka finally snapped.

“Well, greetings to you, too…” I muttered, unamused by her tone. “What’s your excuse for being here?”

“Ui-chan said that they have watermelon,” she said.

“Huh, you got watermelon?” I asked Hirasawa.

She nodded. “Would like some?”

“Of course, thank you very much,” I said as I finally got on my feet.

Yui, however, just kept laying on the floor, clearly not planning on moving anywhere anytime soon. To motivate her, I began pushing her side with my leg.

“Hey, get moving, you sloth.”

“S-Sugimoto-kun, stop! T-that tickles!” she giggled, and pushed my leg away.

I smirked, and glanced over at the girls. My eyes were drawn to the unknown girl, who just stared at me. I could almost imagine a cluster of question marks popping around her head. Yet another staring contest, huh? It’s been a while since the last one. Hold on, is she the new club member Yui told about some months ago? What was her name again…?

From the corner of my eye, I saw Yui raising her head to get a look at the guests.

“Oh, Azunyan~” she muttered.

Confused, I glanced at Yui, and then at the pigtailed girl. I kept doing this for a while, until I smirked.

Azunyan?” I asked the girl, an amused grin on my face.

This caused the girl to blush and clench her fists. “My name is Azusa!”

Her annoyed but cute expression reminded me of a kitten trying its best to look threatening. The thought was too much for me, and I began laughing. It lasted for some time, until I finally managed to calm myself down.

“Is that so?” I muttered with an amused sigh.

This Azusa gal blushed even more, angrily glaring at me.

“Alright, sorry…” I soothed her.

She finally relaxed, sighed, and muttered: “It wasn’t that funny…”

Still smiling a bit, I glanced over at Hirasawa, who was covering her giggling mouth with her fist. After getting the laughter out of her system, she walked between us.

“Azusa-chan, this is my friend, Sugimoto Eiji-kun. Sugimoto-kun, this is Azusa-chan.”

I raised my hand. “Yo, Azusa-cha—”

“Don’t you even start!” she retorted, cutting my sentence short. “I’m ‘Nakano-san’ to you!”

I was a bit surprised by her eruptive nature, but soon smirked again. “Sure, whatever, Nakano-san.” Man, am I gonna have fun messing with her.

“Sugimoto-kun, would you mind helping me with this?” I heard Hirasawa asking me.

She had grasped Yui’s right arm. I understood what she meant, and grabbed Yui’s left arm. Using my free hand to count to three, we pulled Yui on her feet. She didn’t seem to mind the situation. Following Hirasawa’s instructions, I grabbed Yui by the shoulders and led her few meters to the side, while Hirasawa placed the coffee table on the floor. Next, I led Yui to the table and gently pushed the back of her knees with my foot to make her sit down. She slumped on the table, and resumed being as lazy as before.

Hirasawa nodded to herself. “Take a seat, I’ll go prepare some watermelon,” she said, before disappearing to the kitchen.

By her orders, I sat down at my usual spot, Tainaka and Nakano joining me soon after. I noticed Nakano glancing at me, almost as if she wants to say something.

“Um, how long have you and Ui-chan been friends?” she finally asked.

I wasn’t exactly expecting that kind of a question, but I still answered: “About two years.”

She seemed a bit surprised. “Well… how old are you?”

Right at that moment, Hirasawa appeared from the kitchen with a tray full of goodies, and decided to answer Nakano’s question: “16, right?”

“Uh, actually… 17,” I muttered.

Setting the tray down on the table, she crouched down right next to me with a surprised expression, leaning towards me. “What? Since when?”

I backed up a bit. “Since last week. Look, it’s not that important, okay?”

She seemed a bit offended, and with a sigh, she finally backed down. “So, at the end of July. I have to remember that…” She then circled the table and sat down across from me, next to her sister.

Why the hell was she worrying about my birthday so much? Was she just looking for an excuse to make delicious food, and maybe a big cake? Wait… on the other hand, maybe I should let her host my birthday.

Without waiting any further, Tainaka grabbed a slice of watermelon from the platter. I followed her example, picking a slice and biting into it. We kept munching on the watermelons in complete silence for a while, until a question came to my mind.

“By the way, Yui-san? Your school is holding another festival in a couple of months, right?”

She swallowed her mouth empty. “Of course. Does your school hold festivals?”

“Actually, yes, at the end of February, but it’s a bit smaller than the one at your school. It’s more like a public party where seniors can relax after the final exams,” I explained.

Nakano, who was following our conversation, asked me: “By the way, what school do you go to?”

“Kasumimashita, why?” I asked back.

“Oh? It actually was my second option, since it was the second closest to my home, but I got accepted to Sakuragaoka.”

I pointed my finger at her. “Be thankful for that, it’s hundred times better, and better looking, too.”

“How do you know that?” she asked me.

“Ah, last year I visited the festival to watch the Light Music Club’s performance,” I explained, and she seemed to understand.

We kept on munching on the watermelons, until the platter was full of empty rinds.

“Oh boy, that was refreshing,” Tainaka stated, sighing out of satisfaction.

I glanced at her, thinking. Her tomboyish personality reminded me of Suzuki. Though, unlike Suzuki, she’s a lot more ongoing and, should I say, wild. But, there’s still something about her that is bugging me…

She noticed me looking at her, and after a while turned to the other girls. “Why is this guy staring at me…?”

There must be something. Something I’ve missed, something I’ve forgotten. Forgotten… What is something I’d forget? Or better yet, what is something that I’d like to forget? Maybe, just maybe…

And then, I finally got it.

Out of surprise, I slammed my hand against the table, making the girls flinch a bit. I pointed at Tainaka with my finger.

“We went to the same junior high!”

Still a bit surprised by my slam, she glanced at the other girls, her expression changing to unamused one. “Only now you noticed it?”

“W-what? You mean… you recognized me before?” I asked, confused as hell.

“Yeah, all the way back at the Christmas party. Actually, it was Mio-chan who recognized you first.”

I didn’t know what to think. “…w-well, why didn’t you guys say something?”

She just shrugged. “Why? It’s not like we were in the same class or anything.”

Making slight, confused movement with my lips, I was about to ask something else, until my eyes met with her. She had unamused, almost annoyed expression. Almost as if she was quietly telling me ‘I don’t want to talk about it, so shut up’. I looked at her for a while, until I turned to look at the other girls, who were all confused about my sudden outburst. Shit, I’m just making a scene.

“A-ah, yeah, just wondering…” I muttered, backing down.

The following silence was painful, since I had caused it all by myself. It seemed to last an eternity, until Hirasawa saved my mental health by deciding to talk.

“Would anyone like some iced tea?”

After receiving a few approving nods, she got up and headed to the kitchen. Right after that, the girls began talking amongst themselves. Since they were talking about inside stuff, I decided to just lean back and stare out of the balcony door. I guess this is the disadvantage of being friends with people from another school. Well, whatever. I’ve gotten used to it.

After finishing my iced tea, I decided to make my leave, since I felt like an outsider among the girls. I quickly came up with some half-assed excuse, headed down to the foyer to get my shoes on, and left the house. I managed to walk a minute or so by myself, until I began hearing running steps behind me. I turned around, and to my complete surprise, it was Tainaka.

“Hey, wait up,” she said, a bit winded.

I glanced at her. “What’s up?”

“It’s just… I couldn’t help but notice how bothered you were about our earlier conversation,” she said.

I kept looking at her, and turned my gaze forwards, resuming walking. “Yeah, you’re right.”

She began walking alongside me. “Do you want to, uh, talk about it?”

Still keeping my eyes forward, I thought for a while. “…since you guys went to the same junior high as I, you must also know about my, well, reputation.”

She chuckled nervously. “Yeah, I guess we do.”

“Right…” I muttered. “So that’s why you didn’t want to talk about it back at the house?”

“Yup,” she nodded.

We walked in silence for a moment. Since she didn’t seem to have any objections about my route, I guess he also lives in the north-east part of the town.

Gathering up some courage, I glanced at Tainaka, and asked: “So, are you gonna tell Hirasawa? The younger one, I mean.”

“About what?” she asked back.

“About the fact that her friend is a violent delinquent.”

She seemed puzzled. “Why would we tell her something like that?”

Taken by surprise, I came to a halt. Tainaka also stopped and turned to look at me. My confused expression made her snicker.

“Listen, Sugimoto-san. I know what you did back then. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t anything admirable, but the thing is, it’s in the past. I mean, you’re not like that anymore, right?”

Still confused, I nodded slightly. She just smiled and continued on walking, as I hurried next to her.

She grinned out of amusement. “You can just imagine what Mio-chan and I thought when the delinquent of our junior high suddenly appeared to the Christmas party. The first minutes were very tense. But, to our complete surprise, you seemed like a whole different person. Sure, your easily annoyed personality was still there, but you didn’t outright snap, or blurt out F’s and S’s in every sentence. And most importantly, you didn’t have that annoyed frown on your face. You actually seemed happy.”

“Is that so…?” I muttered, a bit puzzled.

“After the party, Mio-chan and I still had this small doubt at the back of our minds, so… we decided to ask Yui-chan about you. But, according to her, you’re exactly the same as you were at the party. We didn’t hear a single thing that would point out to delinquency,” she told, and snickered. “Well, except for the time you skipped school to visit our school’s festival, but I guess that can be overlooked.”

Having listened to her story, I needed a clear answer. “So, uh, where are you getting at with this?”

“What I mean is, why would we tell Ui-chan about your past if you’re not that kind of a person anymore?”

I kept staring at her in awe, processing her words, until I slowly nodded. “That… actually makes sense.”

Of course. Why does my past matter so much? It has become apparent that Hirasawa is one of the kindest persons I’ve ever met. There’s no way she’d cut ties with me just because of what I did back in junior high. I mean, sure, I still don’t want her to know about it, but I guess I shouldn’t stress about it that much.

At an intersection, Tainaka suddenly took a turn. “I’ve got to drop by the grocery store, so I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Oh, alright. See ya,” I said, waving my hand for goodbye.

I didn’t even have time to take a step, until she blurted out: “Sorry for messing up your plans of a date with Ui-chan!”

“We’re not dating!” I yelled back to her, as she continued on walking, laughing all the way.

I kept glaring at her, murmuring something out of annoyance, and decided to just keep on walking back home. Well, she had clearly noticed how to get under my skin, so I guess I’ll just have to get used to it. To be honest, I felt relieved. I didn’t have to worry about my past anymore, so I should just concentrate on the present, and maybe a bit on the future.

Chapter Text

“This, gentlemen, is how you earn 500 yens,” I said to my friends, holding a coin between my fingers.

My, how easy it is to fool money out of overconfident punks. After all, strength only makes up half of winning an arm-wrestling match, and the rest comes down to technique, which I have come to master over the years. So, sometimes when I’m low on money, I scope the cafeteria out for arrogant-looking punks, and challenge them to an arm-wrestling match for money. Of course, betting is strictly prohibited in our school, but so far I haven’t gotten in trouble, so whatever, I guess. After buying myself a sandwich and a drink, we exited to the hallway.

“Want to head up to the walkway? The weather seems nice,” Tadaaki suggested as he glanced out of the hallway’s window.

Ichiro and I agreed. Despite it being the middle of autumn, the weather was still rather warm, so I guess it could be refreshing to enjoy our lunch outside. We climbed up to the third floor, and exited to the elevated walkway. The walkway doesn’t see much use outside of lunch breaks, since as I’ve earlier stated, the third floor of the west wing doesn’t hold any classes. Regardless, it’s still a good place to hang out when the weather’s nice. Enclosed with three meter tall chain-link fences, it’s like a miniature rooftop you see in high school anime and such. Taking a seat on the low ledge and leaning against the fence, we began eating our lunch, admiring the scenery from time to time.

After finishing out meals, I stood up and stretched a bit. “Let’s go to the club room, we still got half an hour to waste.”

“Ah, Sugimoto-san.”

“Good idea, I still have room for some coffee,” Tadaaki said, stuffing the trash into his coat’s pocket.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“We could also check out that one indie rock album. You know, the one the club’s Founder praised a lot,” Ichiro suggested.

“There’s something I need to talk about with you.”

“It’s a plan, then. Let’s get moving,” I said, and we started walking towards the door.

“Are you ignoring me on purpose!?” Hironaka snapped as the grabbed me by the back of my uniform’s collar.

“What the hell do you want!?” I retorted, glancing at her over my shoulder.

She just angrily glared back at me. I looked at my friends, and beckoned them to go ahead without me. After glancing at each other with confused faces, they headed off and exited the walkway.

Finally letting go of me, Hironaka sighed and crossed her arms. “I’ve been looking for you for a while.”

“Whatever it is, I didn’t do it, okay? Actually, you can tell those fatheads at the faculty office to stop blaming me for everything,” I said, still annoyed.

My words caused Hironaka to get a bit muddled. “Huh? Oh, no, you’re not being accused of anything.”

“Is that so…? Well, never mind, then,” I muttered as I started walking towards the door.

However, I was grabbed by the collar once again. “Not so fast!”

“What now!?” I cried out.

“I’ve still got something to talk about with you!” Hironaka yelled as she yanked my collar.

I tried to struggle myself free. “But didn’t you just say that I’m not being accused of anything?”

This caused Hironaka to turn me around to face her, yanking me a bit closer. She furiously glared at me.

“So I’m only a student council member? That’s everything I am? My whole personality? My interests? My hobbies? Just running around after losers like you because teachers ask me to? Is that what you think?”

I could almost see the flames of anger in her eyes. Alright, I’ve got to admit, she had me pretty scared for a moment. That’s why I didn’t feel like coming up with some witty remark.

“…just get to the point,” I muttered, glancing elsewhere.

Releasing me from her grasp and taking a step back, she took a moment to calm down, and asked: “You play guitar, right?”

I was in the middle of fixing my collar, so the question caught me off guard. “Huh? Uh, sure, why?”

“Would you like to perform at the Winter Festival?” she presented me with a new question.

This was the festival I told Yui about. Winter Festival, as the name states, is held at the end of February, right between the finals and the graduation ceremony. Though, it wasn’t as much of a festival as just a big breather for students and a last change for seniors to have some fun. Regardless, it was a public event, and students maintained different kinds of stalls and activities, but due to winter, almost all of them were located inside. These activities included different kinds of performances held in the auditorium, including musical ones.

I raised an eyebrow. “Where’s this coming from?”

“There’s a group of miscellaneous students, none affiliated with any clubs, who would want to perform a song, but they’re missing a rhythm guitarist. None of the clubs have any to spare, and my searches for a guitarist amongst the students have been fruitless. So, that’s why I’m asking you,” she explained.

I crossed my arms, turning to face the fence, and scoped out the school’s front yard. “…shit, I don’t know. Why is this so important to you, anyway?”

“No reason,” she said swiftly, diverting her gaze elsewhere.

I turned to face her. “Gal, you’re lying between your teeth.”

Glimpsing at me, she hid her face behind her hair. “I… I might’ve, you know, composed the song, so…”

I was a bit surprised, but I soon smirked. “Ah, of course. You play piano, after all.”

With a faint blush, she soon pulled herself together. “A-anyway, how about it?”

Alright, this time I was seriously thinking about the offer. Sure, I like to play the guitar from time to time, but it’s not a constant hobby, so I’m not quite sure about my skills. Though, I’ve certainly improved over these years. Also, my role would be a rhythm guitarist, meaning I probably won’t have to do anything too complex. Still, I was a bit unsure about performing publicly to hundreds of people… Ugh, this is too much to think about in one sitting.

“How about this?” I snapped my fingers, getting Hironaka’s attention. “Let me think about it for the rest of the day. I’ll catch you after school and tell you my answer.”

Hironaka thought about my words for a while, until she nodded. “Just… don’t let it be another one of your lies, alright?”

“What do you take me for? Some kind of a delinquent?” I quipped as I walked to the door, and got back inside.

I was in the middle of doing the math problems when the bell rang, ending the school day. I glanced at my notebook, which had only few lines of writing. All the afternoon I’ve been thinking about Hironaka’s suggestion, so I couldn’t really concentrate on the exercises. Not that I usually do, but I still got to learn something if I want to graduate someday. I was about to head out to find Hironaka, but soon spotted my friends, who were heading to the club room. Oh well, Hironaka has some club activities herself, so I guess I could drink a cup of coffee before catching her.

After finishing my coffee, I threw the uniform’s coat back on my shoulders, and grabbed my schoolbag. “I’ve got something to take care of. See ya tomorrow.”

Tadaaki and Ichiro both waved me goodbye, lazing around on the couches. I walked the stairs up back to the ground floor, and headed off to the shoe lockers to change my shoes. I stepped outside, and circled the school to get to the sports ground. Different kinds of sports clubs were training around the field, including the Athletics club. Some of its female members were currently running the track. As I walked closer, I recognized Hironaka amongst the runners. Actually, she was leading the group. I knew she’s good at running, but damn, I was still a bit impressed. The girls waiting at the finish line cheered as Hironaka crossed it and slowly came to a stop. I walked towards her.

“Yo, Hironaka,” I greeted her, getting her (and all the onlookers’) attention.

She walked over to me, breathing heavily. The first thing I noticed was her t-shirt, which was soaked in sweat. It caused her bra to be a bit visible. However, I managed to keep my eyes off them. My teen hormones can’t best my self-discipline.

“Well, look at that. You actually came,” she quipped, a bit exhausted.

Unamused by her joke, I glanced around the sports ground. “Yeah, whatever. Anyway, my answer is yes.”

“R-really? That’s… that’s great,” Hironaka said, clearly relieved. “We’ll discuss it in better detail tomorrow at lunch break, okay?”

“Alright, see you then,” I said as I threw my hand for goodbye and turned around.

However, as I was walking away, I began hearing the girls talk behind my back.

“Why are you affiliated with that guy?” some girl asked. “Don’t tell me you two are… you know…”

I heard Hironaka snickering. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’d never go out with someone like Sugimoto.”

Well, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting those words, so I just ignored it, and kept walking. Nothing new under the blue sky.

“…besides, he’s already dating someone.”

Wait, what? What the fuck was that just now, did I hear that right? I felt like turning around and confirming my suspicions, but I didn’t want to make a scene, so I just kept walking. Just my imagination, that’s all.

The next day, at noon, lunch break started. As my friends were heading towards the basement, I stayed in the hallway.

“You guys go ahead, I’ve got something to take care of.”

“Again?” Ichiro asked, confused.

Tadaaki had a smug grin on his face. “Some girl, maybe? Are you gonna introduce us to her?”

I almost choked on my spit, but somehow managed to keep my poker face. “Dude, if I had a girl, you clowns would be the last people I’d introduce to her.”

Tadaaki snickered, and began walking, confused Ichiro tailing after him. “Okay, whatever. Catch us later.”

I stood there to make sure they actually disappeared from the hallway, and began searching for Hironaka. She soon appeared from one of the classrooms.

“Ah, there you are. We’ll be going to the west wing. Follow me,” she instructed, and began walking along the hallway, me following right behind her.

Just as she said, we walked to the second floor of the west wing, to the end of the hallway.

“Others should be here already,” she said as she slid the door open.

The classroom was mostly empty, save for some chairs and desks here and there. On the said chairs sat four students, chatting with each other. One of them was a girl, and the rest were guys. From the color of their student ID cards, I noticed that three of them were second graders, and one was a senior. They all directed their gazes at us. Hironaka gave me a slight tap in the back, motioning me to step inside, which I did.

“Everyone, this is Sugimoto-san, he’ll be your rhythm guitarist,” Hironaka introduced me, and the students gave me small greetings.

“I’ll leave you to it, then,” she said before exiting the classroom and closing the door. I can’t believe I say this, but please, Hironaka, don’t leave me alone!

The students glanced at each other, until one of them (the senior) opened his mouth: “Aren’t you the…”

“The delinquent? Yes, I am,” I cut him off by finishing his sentence with unamused expression.

The guy was a bit taken aback, but he soon smiled and stood up. “Don’t worry about it, we’re not here to discuss that.”

He walked over to the wall, picking up an electric guitar leaning against it, and handed it over to me. “Show us what you got.”

“H-huh? Oh, sure, I guess,” I muttered as I took the guitar and began setting my fingers in different positions, trying to come up with something to play.

The girl snickered. “Are you gonna play dry? There’s an amplifier right next to you.”

I noticed the said thing right next to my feet, and got a bit embarrassed. “What? Y-yeah, of course, I’m just checking how it feels in my hand.” Now I wasn’t so sure about my skills anymore…

After plugging the guitar to the amplifier, I took a couple of deep breaths, and began playing a punk rock song. Holy shit, this actually sounds amazing! This must be that senior’s own guitar, there’s no way this piece-of-shit school could afford something like this. I played the song to the end of the first chorus, and as the sound died down, I slowly raised my head to see the other students. They seemed… indifferent. Oh fuck, I’m going home.

However, a slight smile appeared on the senior’s face. “Not bad. Actually, it was better that I anticipated. Sure, your chord switching could use a bit training, and you accidentally mute some strings. But, with some training, this’ll work.”

The other students gave him approving nods, and I couldn’t help but smile sheepishly.

“Do you have your own guitar?” he suddenly asked me.

“Uh, no. Is it a problem?”

He sighed, crossing his arms, and gazing at the ceiling. “No, not really. It’s just that we can’t really practice together that much, since I’m busy with the Baseball club, and these others have their own club activities. So, it would be better if you could practice on your free time.”

“But remember, the Winter Festival is many months away, so don’t sweat it,” one of the other guys noted.

My own guitar… Never before has that sentence tasted so good in my mouth. Ah, fuck it. I’ll buy one. I already have some money saved up for better computer components, but I guess that can wait for some other time.

The next Sunday I visited the Hirasawa residence. I was sitting at the coffee table, telling the girls about my recent purchase.

“What!? You have a guitar!?” Yui yelled out in surprise.

I nodded, sipping my tea.

“What’s its name?” she suddenly asked.

I almost choked on the tea due to the question. “Uh, it’s Yamaha Pacifica. I’m not sure about the exact model, I bought it second hand.”

Yui shook her head. “I’m not talking about models, I’m asking for its name.”

“Why in the world would I name my guitar?” I muttered with an unamused expression.

“Alright, it’s settled then. Your guitar’s name is Patricia!” she declared confidently, pointing her finger upwards.

I still wasn’t amused by her innovation. “Why a feminine name?”

“Because your guitar is like that special someone to you,” she explained. However, she blushed slightly, and muttered: “I mean, unless, you know, you’re g—”

“Anyway!” I swiftly said to cut her off. “Out of all names, why Patricia?”

Yui cocked her head confusedly. “You said it yourself.”

“I said Pacifica, it’s a guitar series!” I was getting a bit annoyed.

“Oh? Well, in any case, it’s now Patricia,” she said with a smile.

I felt like retorting with something, but soon gave up on the idea. Quarreling with Yui leads nowhere, I’ve come to learn that the hard way. Hirasawa, who was sitting next to her sister, giggled into her fist. Guess our arguing was as amusing as ever, huh…

“Oh, right. Our school’s festival is in just a few days. Are you going to visit it this time too?” Yui asked me.

I nodded. “It’s a great excuse to take some break from school.”

“Do they give you a permission just like that?” Hirasawa asked, cocking her head.

“Nah, I just skip school,” I said, almost bragging, and sipped my tea.

Hirasawa became worried. “What? Don’t you get in trouble?”

I shook my head. “In my school, they don’t really care if you skip school once in a month or so, as long as you get your work done.” I’m not sure if that assured her, since she still looked a bit worried.

As I sipped my tea, I realized something, and spoke to Hirasawa: “You know, last year I was there only to watch Yui’s club’s performance, so I didn’t have much time to explore the place any further.”

She understood what I had in mind and smiled. “So you’d like if someone showed you around? That’s fine by me. Let’s take Jun-chan and your sister with us.”

“Still can’t believe you’re somehow friends with my sister…” I muttered under my breath with unintentional snicker.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Yui sniffling. “By the way, what made you buy your guita... a… a-a-a—”

Achoo!

“S-sis!” Hirasawa yelled worriedly.

“That didn’t sound like a casual sneeze,” I stated and gulped the rest of my tea down, since I felt like I’d need to make my leave soon.

“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Rea… a-a-Achoo!” Yui sneezed again, not even being able to finish her sentence.

Hirasawa placed her hand on Yui’s forehead, and flinched. “Sis, you’ve got a fever!”

“Well, that does it. I’m getting out of here,” I muttered as I stood up.

As I was heading to the stairs, I quickly realized how asshole-ish my exit would be, so I turned to face the girls. “Yo, Yui-san, try to get better soon. I’m not planning on missing your performance.”

“Y-you can count on me,” Yui sniffled with a goofy smile, holding a peace sign.

“And Hirasawa,” I said as I turned my attention to the other girl. “Take care of her, alright?”

She seemed a bit surprised by my sudden interest in her sister’s wellbeing, but soon smiled and nodded. “Of course.”

Alright, now I’m not such a big asshole anymore, and it actually felt nice to say those things. I could finally head down to the foyer to get my shoes on, and leave the house.

Couple of days later I messaged with Hirasawa. She told me she went to Yui’s club disguised as her sister, but was caught. Man, that girl really cares about her sister.

The next day was the day of the festival. Like before, I woke up before six o’clock, getting dressed as quietly as I could, and hiding my school stuff into my closet. Grabbing my phone and my wallet, I sneaked downstairs to get my shoes on, and quietly stepped outside. Closing my hoodie’s zipper and slipping my hands into its pockets, I began heading towards Hirasawa residence, as we had planned beforehand.

Half an hour later I arrived at the house. I was thinking about messaging Hirasawa, since I didn’t want to ring the doorbell, but she managed to spot me from the kitchen window. She waved at me, and I answered the gesture. It took only a few seconds until she came down to open the door. She was already wearing her school uniform.

“Good morning, Sugimoto-kun,” she greeted me quietly.

As we headed upstairs, I noticed a serving of breakfast on the dining table.

To my surprise, Hirasawa said: “That’s for you. I’ll join you as soon as I get my own breakfast ready.” She then headed to the kitchen.

Man, that’s for me? Even though I’ve been receiving her hospitality for almost two years now, it still manages to surprise me. The meal consisted of just a piece of toast and a glass of orange juice. Normally it wouldn’t be anything special, but since it was made for me, it’s god damn special, alright. I took a seat at the dining table, but didn’t touch the food until Hirasawa had her own meal ready.

As I swallowed the first bite, I glanced towards the ceiling. “How’s your sister?”

“A lot better. Though, she’s going to rest until the last minute just to make sure,” she said.

I nodded, resuming eating the breakfast. After finishing our meals, Hirasawa gathered the dishes, carried them over to the kitchen and began washing them. I checked my watch, which told me we still had an hour to waste before heading off. Without further ado, I moved myself from the dining table to the couch, where I laid down. I might’ve relaxed a bit too much, since I fell asleep.

“—ke up. Sugimoto-kun, wake up,” I heard a whisper.

Slowly opening my eyes, I saw Hirasawa, who was gently shaking me by the shoulder.

“…ah, I guess I dozed off…” I muttered as I sat up, quickly noticing that Hirasawa had covered my body with a warm blanket.

Hirasawa took a step back, and smiled. “It’s fine, glad you could get more sleep.”

After standing up and stretching for a bit, I asked: “So, uh, guess we’re leaving now?”

She answered with a nod. We got downstairs, and headed out. Even though the sun was higher than when I arrived here, it still was a bit chilly, and I had to keep my hoodie’s zipper closed. After some minutes of walking, we arrived at the train station. There, to my surprise, we met Suzuki. And she seemed to be as surprised to see me.

“Sugimoto-kun? What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Taking a break from school,” I quipped. “I actually could ask the same from you. Why are you standing here at the train station?”

“I’m waiting for your sister. We planned on going together to school,” she explained.

Hirasawa seemed to remember something. “Oh, we did, didn’t we?”

“Now just hold on a minute. You didn’t tell them about me coming along?” I muttered, glancing at Hirasawa.

“Oh, uh, I was so worried about my sister’s fewer that I completely forgot, eheh,” she said, laughing embarrassedly.

I glanced at her, about to say something, but… God damn it, there’s something in that smile that makes me forgive her. Right at that moment, the train arrived at the station, pushing out dozens of people, most to which were wearing Sakuragaoka’s uniform. One of them was my sister, Tamiko, who walked over to us.

With that usual smile on her face, she began greeting us: “Good morning, Ui-chan, Jun-chan, Eiji-cha—”

As she got to me, she fell quiet. Out of nowhere, she hit me on the forehead with the edge of her palm.

“Ow, what’s that for?” I cried out, taking a step backwards.

She clenched her fists out of anger. “Why are you skipping school, you idiot? You’ll get in trouble!”

“For fu— …god’s sake, stop worrying about me so much,” I muttered.

I wasn’t sure if she was planning on yelling at me again, since Hirasawa stepped between us to defuse the situation.

“Tamiko-chan, it’s my fault. I invited him, but I forgot to mention about it to you,” she explained with a nervous smile.

Suzuki nodded, placing her hand on Tamiko’s shoulder. “Besides, it’s not like one day of skipping school will get him into any trouble, right?”

Tamiko glanced at the girls, until the directed her annoyed gaze towards me. “Yes, it wouldn’t be a problem if it was only one day.”

“Eh?” Hirasawa turned around to look at me. “Has… Sugimoto-kun been skipping school often?”

Slipping my hands into my pockets, I turned around, and began walking. “Alright, I get it. I’m going to school.”

“Ah, S-Sugimoto-kun!” Hirasawa yelled after me.

It took some time to finally convince my sister to cut me some slack. However, she said that I was treading on some mighty thin ice. After assuring that I’d take school more seriously from now on, we began heading towards Sakuragaoka. After a bit of walking, we finally arrived. Even though it was only a bit before 9 in the morning, the festival was already going at full speed. The stalls were opened, at least hundred people roamed around the yard, and whoever was in charge of decorating the place should get a raise.

As we walked through the yard, Hirasawa turned to face me. “We’ll be stopping by our class to get attendance markings, then we have some fun.”

I nodded. “Alright, fine by m—”

My sentence was cut short as someone grabbed me from behind, covering my eyes. I could also feel two soft ‘balls’ pressing against my back.

“Guess who!”

I struggled to get myself free. “Get off of me, Yoshiko-san!”

The girl behind me finally let me go, and I turned around. As I had guessed, it was Nakamura Yoshiko.

Putting her hands on her hips, she leaned towards me. “Is that how you answer to a greeting?”

“You call that stranglehold a greeting?” I asked, unamused.

She just smirked for an answer. After that, she noticed the ladies accompanying me, who in turn were staring at us, everyone equally confused.

“Oh, are these the friends you’ve been talking about?” she asked.

“Yeah. Actually, that one’s my sister,” I said, nodding towards the light haired lady.

Yoshiko walked to her, leaning for a closer look. “She’s your sister!?” Tamiko was too nervous to say a word, as the other girls were still just staring in pure confusion.

Grabbing her by the shoulders and a flash of joy in her eyes, she asked: “Mind if I take her for myself?”

“Be my guest,” I said indifferently, glancing elsewhere.

“What a horrible brother you have…” she muttered to my sister.

“I know, right?” my sister muttered back. Great, now there were two against me…

Looking at my other friends, Yoshiko became puzzled. “Since when have you been this good with the ladies?”

This caused Suzuki to recover from her shock, and become interested. “You mean, he’s shy around girls?”

Yoshiko nodded with a grin. “Oh, yes, though ‘shy’ might be an understatement. Or, at least it used to be that way. It seems that Eiji-kun has struck his head or something. I can’t find any other explanation for that sudden change of personality.” Oh for crying out loud, please shut your mouth, gal!

“Sugimoto-kun, is that true?” Hirasawa asked me. Which damn part does she mean; about me being shy, or about me striking my head!?

“Enough of this shit already!” I retaliated, pulling a hood over my head to hide my blushing face.

“See? I told you he’s shy,” I heard Yoshiko quipping, and the girls giggled.

Well, after some very embarrassing first encounters, I finally managed to calm myself down and introduced Yoshiko to the girls. She joined us as we spent the next hours exploring around the school, checking out different stalls and activities, and eating delicious snacks. Now that I had more time to get a look around me, I noticed few other teenage boys here and there. Phew, I guess I’m not such an individual after all. Despite that, I still noticed some students glancing at me every now and then, but I tried my best to ignore it, and just concentrate on having fun.

As the morning was turning into a noon, the girls and I decided to take a breather on some benches located a bit further away from the stalls. Everyone was drinking their own refreshments, my choice being a multi-colored slushie. I was having a conversation with Hirasawa, until I noticed Yoshiko glancing at us from the corner of my eye.

“You know, I’ve been wondering…” she started, getting our attention. “You’ve been friends for some years, right?”

Hirasawa and I glanced at each other, and we both nodded to Yoshiko, not having any idea about what she meant.

“So, isn’t it weird that you still keep calling each other by last names?” she asked.

Suzuki raised her eyebrow. “Now that I think about it, it is a bit weird. I mean, you call Yui-san by her first name, but not Ui-chan.”

“That’s because they’re both Hirasawa, it’d be too confusing,” I noted, sipping my drink.

“Well how about this,” Yoshiko said, leaning closer to us. “Try calling each other by your first names.”

I clicked my tongue, turning my gaze away. “No deal, it’d be too embarrassing, even for Hirasaw—”

“Eiji-kun,” Hirasawa said like it was nothing, cutting me off and making me flinch a bit.

As I was busy being speechless, Hirasawa smiled to herself. “Oh, you’re right. It feels more natural.”

Yoshiko nodded, and turned to me. “Now you, Eiji-kun.”

“I’ll say it if I feel like it,” I murmured, sipping my drink, and glancing elsewhere.

Suzuki puffed her cheeks, unamused. “You’re no fun, Eiji-kun.” Now she’s doing it, too!?

Another hour passed as we roamed around the school. It wasn’t long until it’d be time for Yui’s club’s performance. As we were about to head to the auditorium, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Yoshiko.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?” she asked.

I was a bit puzzled, but nodded for an answer. “You guys go ahead, I’ll catch you,” I said to the other girls.

They gave me affirmative answers, and began heading towards the auditorium, disappearing into the crowd of festival visitors. I turned to Yoshiko.

“So, uh, what’s up?” I asked her.

She glanced at the school building, her face half-covered by the shadow of a cherry blossom tree. “This is my last festival in this school.”

“Yeah, you’re a senior, after all,” I said, as I, too, raised my gaze towards the school.

“I want to go to college after this. If I’m accepted, it means I’ll have to move away,” she stated.

“Oh…” I managed to say, as I finally understood what was bothering her.

She turned her gaze from the school to the cherry blossom three, under which we were currently standing, and placed her hand on its trunk. “I’ll sure miss this place…”

She turned her mournful eyes towards me, and smiled. “And I’ll miss Tadaaki-kun, Ichiro-kun and you keeping me company at the café.”

The way she talked… I felt bad for her. However, I didn’t let the feelings faze my sense of reason.

“Come on, now. You’re talking like you’d be leaving tomorrow. You still have half a year left in this town. You know, if it makes you feel better, me and the guys could come visit the café more often.”

“Thank you,” she said as she answered my smile. “Now hurry along, you’ll miss the performance at this rate.”

“Huh, aren’t you coming?”

She shook her head. “I’m going to meet up with some of my classmates and have fun with them. Besides, I feel myself old with those three young ladies.”

The latter part made me chuckle, which was probably her intention. I glanced at my watch, and flinched. Shit, I’m gonna be late! Quickly waving my hand for goodbye, I began running towards the auditorium, dodging people like obstacles.

“Take care of Ui-chan!” I could hear a faint yell right behind me.

Huh, what did she mean by that? Bah, whatever, I didn’t have time to think about it, since I needed to concentrate on my running. Some dodging later I finally got to the auditorium. Taking a few seconds to calm my breath, I stepped inside.

“—by After School Tea Time of the Light Music Club.”

The lights were out. I got here just in time to see the red curtain raise, and the crowd started cheering. I scoped my surroundings, and found the girls right next to me, standing next to a wall. I joined them, and noticed that I was approximately at the same spot as last year. I turned my gaze towards the stage. The club members’ attires were as weird as before; this time they were wearing colorful yukatas. It still looked nice on them. However, I quickly noticed something.

“…what the hell…?” I muttered to myself.

My thought process was interrupted by Tainaka, who set the beat, and the song began right after. The beginning gave me goosebumps, it sounded so damn good. And as Akiyama began singing… God fucking damn it, this is the best! But, I still couldn’t help but keep glancing at the guitarist in the front. It was Sawako, the club’s advisor. Where the hell’s Yui?

♫ I’m going to write you with all my love, so that my love reaches you when you receive this letter…! ♫

It was simply amazing, I can’t even find words for it. Though, I was still wondering about Yui. Why isn’t she here? As the song was coming to an end, the door next to me suddenly opened. Yui stepped inside, carrying a guitar bag on her back, breathing heavily and seemingly exhausted, almost as if she’s been running.

“Y-Yui-san!?” I yelled out in surprise.

“Sis!” Hirasawa yelled right after.

Yui turned around to face us. “Eh? Oh, Ui, Sugimoto-kun! Peace!” She threw us a peace sign, and continued on towards the stage.

“Sis, do your best!” Hirasawa cheered after her.

I decided to do my part, too. “Go, Yui-san!”

The song ended just as Yui got to front of the stage. She climbed to the stage, almost tripping in the process, and thanked Sawako, who stepped aside, accompanied by crowd’s cheering. Yui began sobbingly apologizing to the other club members. However, the club members gave her some comforting words, and the crowd began cheering once again, yelling encouraging things. The girls and I did the same. After things calmed down a bit, she plugged her guitar in and stood in front of the microphone, facing the audience. She explained she was late because she forgot her guitar at home, which I’d already figured out. She held a small speech, condensing the events of the past two years into few sentences. After letting the crowd cheer for a while, Tainaka set the beat, and they started playing.

♫ Oh, I pray to God, please, give some Dream Time for just the two of us! ♫

It was that song I fell in love with a year ago. Just like pretty much everyone else, I clapped along the rhythm and lip-synched the lyrics. As the song came to an end, it was quiet. Actually, the silence felt rather empty. However, out of nowhere, Kotobuki began playing the song’s chorus on her keyboard. Tainaka joined her soon after.

“Oh hell yeah!” I shouted as I realized what they had in mind.

Akiyama and Nakano joined the playing, and soon did Yui, too.

“Once again!” she shouted.

♫ Oh, I pray to God, please, give some Dream Time for just the two of us! ♫

The audience stood up, everyone clapping along the beat. I did so too, until I noticed Hirasawa next to me, who was trying her best to see over the crowd, but to no affair. ‘Take care of Ui-chan’, huh…? This might be the stupidest idea I’ve ever had, but I want to help her somehow. After couple of deep breaths, I tapped her on the shoulder.

“Yo, Hirasa— I mean, Ui-san,” I called out to her.

As she turned to look at me, I crouched down. “You can sit on my shoulders, if you’d want a better view.”

Taken aback a bit by my sudden offer, she, however, took my offer, and sat down on my shoulders. She’s a bit lighter than I expected, but I still had a feeling my muscles would be sore tomorrow.

“Up we go,” I muttered as I slowly but surely stood up, leaning against the wall, and holding Hira… Ui by her ankles.

I noticed Suzuki and Tamiko looking at us, first confused, but soon smiling. After balancing herself for a while, Ui directed her gaze towards the stage, and began clapping just as the song ended, and the audience began cheering.

“I love light music!” Yui shouted, and the cheering went on.

I balanced myself along Ui’s movements as she cheered her sister. Not wanting to attract too much unwanted attention, I was about to let her back down. However, as I glanced upwards and saw her smiling face, I decided to let her stay up there for a bit longer.

Chapter Text

December rolled in, the temperature being around zero degrees Celsius. Despite that, there still wasn’t any snow. It was a bright but cold Sunday afternoon. I was sitting at the living room’s kotatsu with my sister, sipping my coffee and watching TV. I glanced to my side, where my big brother, Daichi, would usually be sitting, but not this time. Our uncle, who owns a construction company in a town tens of kilometers away from here, offered him a job. Daichi, who has so far been doing only dead-end part-time jobs, accepted the offer, and moved away last month. I’ll surely miss him, but everyone has to move away at some point. Only a couple of years, and I’d have to do the same.

As I finished my coffee, I got up, stopped by the kitchen to throw the mug into the sink, and walked to the foyer to get my boots and coat on. I noticed Dash getting up from her bed.

“No, we’re not going for a walk. You can laze around for a bit longer.”

Dash seemed to understand me, but instead of laying back down, it walked to the living room, probably to get scratches from Tamiko.

“Are you going somewhere?” I could hear my sister asking.

“Yeah, I’ll be gone for maybe an hour or two,” I answered.

“Alright, but be sure to come back before dinner.”

I stepped outside, and almost slipped. Damn cold has made the wooden porch’s surface slippery. With careful steps, I finally got down from the porch to more secure asphalt, and began walking.

An hour later I stepped out of a bookstore, holding my newest purchase; the fourth volume of Warriors of Lotus. Sweet, I’ll spend the whole winter reading this. My coat’s inside pocket is ridiculously big, so I could easily slip the book in there. Now then, back to home.

Half an hour later I started recognizing some houses. I was in a very familiar neighborhood. It gave me an idea. I dug out my phone and sent Ui a text message. She responded quickly, telling me that she’s currently at a grocery store with her sister. I scoped my surroundings. If I remember correctly, the store should be nearby. I wonder if I can find it. Besides, I felt like buying a soda.

After roaming around for some minutes, I finally found the store and stepped inside. I began walking around the store, looking for the Hirasawa sister. Did I come too late…? No, wait, there they are, right next to the milk shelves.

“Yo,” I greeted them, getting their attention.

“Eiji-kun? You could have waited for us at the house,” Ui said, surprised about my presence.

I shrugged. “Eh, I just happened to be nearby.”

“Eiji-kun, Eiji-kun!” Yui called out for me enthusiastically. “Which sounds better: marshmallow-soy-milk hotpot or chocolate-curry hotpot?”

“A what now?” I muttered, very confused. Yui, however, was still waiting for my answer. “…if I was threatened with a gun, I’d eat the latter.”

My answer fell on deaf ears, since Yui was busy texting on her phone. “I’ll ask the others.”

I wanted to say something, but just sighed out of frustration, and turned to Ui.

“Is there something I can help with?”

She seemed to think about my offer. “Well, not right now, but you could later help with the grocery bags.”

“Roger that,” I said with a nod.

Since I had nothing better to do, I just followed the girls as they did their shopping, making a small chitchat.

After a while, Yui checked her phone and frowned. “No one’s replying.”

“I wouldn’t either if I got a question like that,” I quipped.

“But you already gave me your answer,” she noted.

“Huh? I thought you didn’t care about it.”

Yui shook her head. “Of course I cared, I just need more answers from other people.”

“What, is this some kind of a vote or something…?” I muttered with a sigh.

Suddenly, Yui’s phone started ringing.

“Ah, it’s Azunyan,” she said, before answering the call with a smile on her face.

However, as the phone call went on, Yui’s expression turned serious. Is something bad going on?

“Got it. Stay calm, Azunyan. We’ll be there soon,” she said before ending the call.

“W-what’s wrong?” Ui asked worriedly.

“There’s something wrong with a cat that Azunyan is taking care of, and she’s all alone,” Yui explained, slightly panicked.

A cat, huh? Even though Nakano and I are not on the best terms, I still couldn’t ignore a cat.

I think Yui’s panicking got the best of me, too. “Come on, let’s pay for this stuff and go!”

From words to deeds, I soon found myself running along the street, following the Hirasawa sisters. Midway through I realized I forgot to buy that soda. Bah, whatever, right now there’s something more important. After some minutes of running, we finally arrived at Nakano’s house. It was a basic-looking detached house, nothing fancy. We got to the front door, and Yui rang the doorbell. After a few painfully long seconds, Nakano finally answered the door.

“Yui-senpai! Glad you’re here!” she said in a panic.

However, her gaze soon reached me. “Wait, what are you doing here?”

Ignoring her words, I stepped closer. “Where’s the cat?”

“Uh, in the living room,” she muttered, a bit taken aback by my attitude.

I moved in the foyer, kicking off my boots and shaking the coat off my shoulders, and walked deeper into the house. I guess this could be seen as rude, but right now I didn’t care about something so trivial.

“The living room’s on the right!” Nakano instructed me, and I turned to the right.

I found the black-and-white kitten right away. It was laying on top of a couch, coughing and hacking, spitting some yellowish liquid in the process. Ah, now I understand. Some seconds passed, and Nakano and the Hirasawa sisters arrived running to the living room.

As Nakano saw me just staring at the kitten, some confusion mixed in with her panic. “Why are you just standing there!?”

I slowly turned to face her. “Um… You know cats operate, right?”

Now she was even more confused.

“It’s just coughing up a hairball, nothing serious,” I said as I turned my gaze back to the kitten. “Cats tend to do that.”

“Is that right?” she asked the Hirasawa sisters, and they both nodded. Gal, why can’t you trust me just this once?

Right at that moment, the kitten finally managed to get the hairball out of its system.

“There you have it, just a hairball,” I said, pointing at the slimy hairball on the couch.

Nakano quietly glanced at the hairball, and then at the kitten, which was as if nothing had happened. What an awkward silence, maybe I should try to break it.

“Better clean that up, it’s pretty disgusting,” I said, glancing at the hairball.

I don’t know if it was something I said, or the fact that it was me who said it, but it was enough to make Nakano lose it. “You can clean it for all I care!” she snapped.

Well, I guess it’s the least I can do to make up for all the teasing and witty remarks I’ve tormented her with ever since we met for the first time…

After getting the couch clean and washing my hands, I returned back to the living room, joining the girls around the coffee table. They were eating marshmallows that the Hirasawa sisters had bought. Wait, don’t tell me they’re actually going to make that disgusting sounding hotpot… Now that I had more time to take a closer look around, I noticed something about Nakano’s living room: most of the shelves were filled with vinyl records, CD cases, and everything else related to music. I think she once mentioned that her parents are musicians, but I didn’t expect this kind of fanaticism and dedication… Not that it’s weird or anything, it’s actually pretty cool.

“Uh, Sugimoto-san? Do you have a cat, since you know about them?” Nakano asked me.

“Nah, I’ve only got a dog, but my cousins have a cat. I’ve visited them once in a while, and have come to know a handful of things about owning a cat,” I answered, glancing at the kitten, which was napping on the couch. “Besides, it’s common knowledge that cats cough up hairballs.”

She frowned a bit and turned her head away, muttering: “Well I just didn’t happen to know…”

I smiled at her, as she annoyedly glared back at me from the corner of her eye. I don’t know what it is about this gal, but it’s fun to mess with her. I guess it’s because she’s kinda cute when she gets angry and tries to look fearsome, just like a kitten.

“Eiji-kun, you take one, too,” Yui said, holding a marshmallow in her hand.

“Huh? Oh, uh, sure,” I muttered, reaching my hand towards the marshmallow bag.

However, Yui handed the marshmallow over to me. Or at least I thought so at first. When she just held it in front of my face, it soon became apparent what she had in her mind.

“Say ‘ah’,” she instructed me.

I glanced at the marshmallow and then at Yui. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“Aw, come on,” she whined impatiently.

Oh, for fuck’s sake… Rolling my eyes, I opened my mouth. I’d rather go through this than listen to Yui’s childish whining. Yui pushed the marshmallow into my mouth, her finger sliding on my lower lip as she was retracting her hand. As I chewed the marshmallow a bit embarrassed, I glanced at the girls. The Hirasawa sisters were both smiling, while Nakano tried her best to hide her shock. I’m not sure if these humiliating moments will ever be worth the fun ones.

Someone’s message tone sounded, and Yui dug out her phone. “Ah, everyone else replied,” she said as she began checking the messages.

“Huh? Mugi-chan is working?” she yelled out in surprise, and the girls leaned closer.

Click. “Mio-chan is at the beach!”

Click. “Ricchan asks where we are.”

“We’re at Azunyan’s,” she muttered out loud as she wrote an answer, and soon received another message. “Ricchan says that she’s coming over.”

Azunya— I mean, Nakano dug out her own phone. “I’ve got to ask Jun-chan to come and get her cat.”

“Wait, so it’s Jun-san’s cat?” I asked.

She flinched in surprise. “Huh, you know Jun-chan?”

I scratched the back of my head, glancing elsewhere. “Yeah, well, we’ve been friends for some years now.”

Clearly having hard time believing my words, Nakano slowly turned to look at Ui, who just nodded for an answer.

Having processed the information, she turned back to me. “…you’re just full of surprises, you know that? Next you’re probably going to tell me one of my friends is actually your sister or something.” She chuckled a bit at the end of her joke.

It was quiet for a bit. After she noticed my awkward appearance, she began connecting the pieces. As she reached the conclusion, she flinched.

“D-don’t tell me you have a sister named Tamiko.”

After hesitating for a bit, I gave a slight nod.

It took her some time to recover from her shock. “…I just thought the same last name was a coincidence…” she muttered. She’s gonna completely lose it at this rate, so I better keep my mouth shut.

I felt something pushing against my leg under the table. I was about to tell Yui to cut it out, until it suddenly jumped on my lap. It was that kitten.

“W-woah there…” I said in surprise.

The kitten circled my lap couple of times, and laid down. Must be a damn warm lap, huh?

“Looks like Azunyan 2 likes you,” Nakano noted as she leaned a bit closer to see the kitten.

Azunyan 2? So this is actually your sister?” I quipped, scratching the kitten’s head.

Nakano glared at me with an annoyed expression. However, the Hirasawa sisters laughed at my shitty joke. After some seconds, Nakano finally gave up and giggled, too.

As we waited for Tainaka, I just spent my time scratching the kitten on my lap and scoping out the living room. However, I slowly thought of something.

“By the way, why didn’t Jun-san ask me to take care of the cat?” I asked.

Nakano shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because you have a dog?”

“That lazy piece of a dog is really gentle, even towards cats,” I said, and carefully laid down on the floor. “Though, maybe she just didn’t know that.”

The conversation was cut short when the doorbell rang.

“Ah, it’s probably Ricchan,” Yui said as she stood up and headed to answer the door.

I heard the door opening, and a Tainaka-like greeting. A bit later Yui returned to the living room, Tainaka following her.

She flinched as her eyes reached me. “Don’t you have any friends of your own!?”

“Would you please greet me normally even once!?” I retaliated, unintentionally making the girls laugh.

After chatting for a bit, we decided to head to the burger place where Kotobuki is working part-time. Nakano stayed home to wait for Jun to pick up the kitten. As we got to the burger place, we immediately recognized Kotobuki behind the cash register. I don’t know about others, but she seemed out of place to me. Well, I guess she might be tight on money, so I won’t criticize her choices. I’ve actually been thinking about getting a part-time job next summer since I blew all my savings away on that guitar. After ordering our meals, we headed to the table, and couldn’t help but stare at Kotobuki.

“It’s weird seeing Mugi-chan at work,” Yui said. Ah, so I wasn’t alone with my opinion.

Tainaka smiled. “She sure has matured.”

I heard approaching steps, and saw Nakano from the corner of my eye.

“Ah, Azusa!” Tainaka greeted her.

“Did Jun-chan pick up the kitten?” Ui asked her.

Nakano answered with a nod, and took a seat between Ui and me.

Once again I heard approaching footsteps, this time from another direction. It was Akiyama. Guess the whole gang is here, huh. I felt like an odd one out.

“Welcome back, Mio-chan,” Yui greeted her.

Akiyama took a seat next to Tainaka. It took her couple of seconds to notice my presence.

“Oh, Sugimoto-san. Hello,” she greeted me, a bit surprised, but still politely.

“Yo,” I greeted back, and turned to face Tainaka. “See? That’s how you greet properly.”

“I’m going to start greeting you properly after you stop appearing out of nowhere,” she stated, glaring at me.

I sipped my drink, and turned to face Ui. “From now on, every time I come to visit, you’ll warn Tainaka-san about it via a text message. That way she can stop being so surprised about my existence.” My shitty joke caused a few chuckles.

As the girls began talking about their own things, I decided to just keep quiet and eat my food, glancing out the window once in a while. Huh, so Jun got a cat? I remember her mentioning about being a cat person. But seriously, my sister and I could’ve taken care of the cat. I still remember the time my cousins brought their cat over to us. It was Dash’s closest encounter with a feline. At the end of the day, Dash was just sleeping in her bed, while the cat was sleeping on top of Dash.

My thinking was cut short by Tainaka, who grabbed Akiyama by her collar and started trashing her around, clearly mad about something. Whatever it was, I didn’t care about making a scene in the middle of a restaurant.

I snapped my fingers. “Yo, you two. If you’re gonna fight, do it outside,” I said to them with an unamused expression.

It seemed to do the trick, since Tainaka let go of Akiyama, and now they both were like nothing had happened. Seriously, I really feel like an odd one out with these hyperactive ladies. But, to be honest, there’s something in their childish behavior that brings a smile to my face.

They planned on waiting until Kotobuki’s shift would end. I didn’t have anything better to do, so after finishing my meal, I decided to wait, too. I spent the time looking out of the window and listening to the girls’ conversation, throwing a comment or two once in a while. It took about an hour until Kotobuki was released, and we made our leave.

As we got outside, Ui noticed something, and faced me. “Eiji-kun, is that vibrating sound coming from your pocket?”

“Huh?” I muttered in confusion, and began to dig my coat’s pockets.

Yup, it was my phone, alright. It was comfortably tucked between my gloves, which is why I didn’t feel the vibration. The caller was… my sister. Fuck. Looks like she has tried to call me several times, but I hadn’t noticed it.

I looked at Ui with a worried expression, and hesitatingly answered the phone. “H-he-hello—?”

“Where have you been!? Why haven’t you answered your phone!?”

I quickly pulled the phone away from my ear to protect my eardrums. The girls turned to look at my terrified expression and my screaming phone.

As the yelling quieted down, I moved it back to my face. “I-I just bumped into a few friends, and I—”

“I thought you were in trouble! You said you’d be gone for only an hour or two, but it’s been almost five hours!”

“A-a-alright, calm down. I’m coming right over. Just please, for the love of god, calm down,” I said to her with a shaky voice, and ended the call. Tamiko’s usually very sweet and kind, but when she gets angry… god damn.

The girls stared at me in complete surprise, and Ui smiled nervously. “I… I guess you need to head back home.”

“Damn right I do…” I muttered, throwing my hand for goodbye. “See ya, gals. If my sister doesn’t kill me, that is.”

I began running back home. Would she calm down quicker if I buy her some chocolate…?

Few days went by. Right after the classes and a cup of coffee at the club room, I went straight home to change into casual clothes, and headed to Hirasawa residence. Tadaaki had stuff to do back home, and Ichiro was busy being interrogated by teachers after getting into a fight, so I decided to go bother Ui for a change. Midway through I remembered to message her about my plans to visit. I sent her a small message, and got a small, approving answer. I continued on walking along the familiar route, as the approaching winter made me shiver a bit.

As usual, I got to the house, rang the doorbell, and was warmly welcomed by Ui. However, as I got upstairs, I noticed something.

“Where’s Yui?” I asked, not spotting the girl lazing around under the kotatsu as usual.

“She said she had something to do with her friends after school,” Ui answered, walking to the kitchen to prepare some tea.

“Is that so…?” I muttered, taking a seat at my usual spot, and sliding my feet under the kotatsu.

Now that I think about it, it’s been almost two years since I visited this house the first time. Back then, I tried my best to keep my posture straight and was overall a bit nervous. But now this is like a second home to me. I could relax without a worry in the world. Ui got the tea done, and carried the tray over to the kotatsu, taking a seat across from me.

As I grabbed my teacup, something came to my mind. “By the way, how’s my sister doing at school?”

“Uh, good, I guess. However, last Monday she complained a lot about you and your carelessness.”

I chuckled. “I see.”

We both sipper our teas, and Ui asked: “Oh, by the way, isn’t your school’s festival in just a couple of months?”

“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “That’s why I bought my guitar in the first place.”

Ui cocked her head. “Huh? What do you mean?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” I sipped my tea. “I’m going to perform a song there.”

I was about to take another sip, until Ui made the kotatsu shake by slamming her hands on it. She leaned towards me, almost being all fours on top of the kotatsu. Taken by surprise, I quickly backed against the sofa, almost spilling my tea.

“W-why didn’t you tell me something so important!?” she yelled out.

It took me a few seconds to gather my thoughts. “I… I just forgot, okay? Why is it so important to you, anyway?”

Ui finally backed down with a sigh. “I was actually thinking if I should visit your school’s festival…”

She raised her gaze towards me, a flash of determination in her eyes. “…but now, I absolutely must visit it!”

I wasn’t exactly sure what to think, this side of Ui was completely new to me. “…well, uh, what about school? Are you gonna ditch classes just for that?”

“It’s at the end of February, right? I’m sure I can take one day off without any worries,” she said with a smile.

I… uh… Did I just turn her into a delinquent?

After thinking about it for a while, I shrugged. “Well, whatever, do as you want. But just this once.”

“Great!” she rejoiced.

The silence returned, but only for a slight moment. After finishing her tea, Ui crawled towards the TV, raising a pink PlayStation controller.

“Um, would you like to play something?”

Gulping down the rest of my tea in one go, I set the cup down, and grinned. “I haven’t done anything else for the past ten years.”

“…how in the world are you so good at this?” I muttered as the round ended.

I managed to beat Ui, but only barely. We were playing some casual fighting game, and I was actually sweating as I fought against Ui. I was leading her on the score list, but only by few points. Ui just shrugged with a smile, when a sound of the front door took us by surprise.

“I’m home! I brought everyone with me!” a familiar voice greeted from downstairs.

“Ah, it’s sis,” Ui stated as she stood up and headed to the kitchen.

I leaned over to get a glimpse, and noticed her preparing tea for the new guests. With an amused snicker, I began clearing the game console away. I got the job done just as Yui walked upstairs, followed by her friends.

Tainaka flinched and pointed her finger at me. “You aga—”

“Hello, Tainaka-san!” I yelled to cut her off, glaring at her with unamused expression.

Being a bit surprised by my outburst, she smiled nervously. “…I… I mean, what a surprise to see you here.”

“Not sure if that’s any better, but oh well…” I muttered. “My other friends have things to do, so I decided to annoy Ui-san for a change.”

“Huh? I don’t think you’re annoying,” Ui said confusedly, peeking from the kitchen.

I glanced at her, and turned my gaze the other way, muttering under my breath: “…that’s because you don’t understand my jokes, gal…”

We all crammed to Yui’s room. I wouldn’t be there myself, if it wasn’t for Yui, who told that she had something important to tell. As we sat there around Yui’s coffee table, we heard surprising news.

“A… a live house?” I repeated after her.

Yui nodded. “That’s right, at New Year’s Eve. We just finished arranging the plans.”

“That’s great, sis!” Ui said with an audible excitement.

A god damn live house… I’ve been to live houses a few times, listening to different bands. I guess it can be seen as one’s first public gig, if you don’t count school festivals. The girls must be pretty excited. I mean, I would be, if I were in their shoes. I’m pretty excited for my performance at the Winter Festival, and it’s still couple of months away. What live house will they be performing at, anyway? I wonder if I could get ticke—

“Here, Eiji-kun,” Yui said, cutting my thought process short.

“I, uh… What?” I stuttered.

“A ticket to the concert. You’ll come to see it, right?” she said, waving the said thing in her hand.

Still confused a bit, I grabbed the purple ticket, handling it carefully. “Thanks. Damn right I’ll come.”

Yui then handed two other tickets to Ui, saying that they’re for her and Jun.

“A ticket to my sister’s first public performance… it’s too precious to be wasted,” Ui whimpered, clearly touched by Yui’s gesture.

“Then how do you plan on seeing it…?” I muttered out of frustration.

“Oh, I need to give one to Nodoka-chan, too,” Yui thought to herself.

Ah, Nodoka, or as I call her, the spectacle-headed girl. I’ve met her a few times over the year, when she has happened to be visiting the Hirasawa residence at the same time as I. Save for some casual chitchat, we never really conversate that much. But then again, I’m Ui’s friend, and she’s Yui’s. I mean, just imagine what would happen if I tried to have Ichiro talk with one of my sister’s friends. It’d be very awkward, that’s for damn sure.

“Here, Eiji-kun.”

My though process was, once again, cut short, when Ui handed me a teacup.

Ten days later, winter holiday had already begun. It was afternoon, and the sky was starting to turn orange. I was hanging around a street corner in downtown, waiting. After a bit, three familiar girls appeared on a walkway across the street.

One of them, Jun, noticed me. “Oh, there he is. Eiji-kun, over here!”

Watching out for cars, I quickly crossed the street to get to the girls.

Ui cocked her head, a bit sorry looking. “I hope we didn’t make you wait for too long.”

“Nah, not at all,” I said. It was a lie, I’ve been waiting here for almost twenty minutes, but didn’t want to mention it.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san. Long time no see,” the third girl, Nodoka, greeted me.

“Yo,” I greeted her back. “So, where to now?”

Nodoka dug out a sheet from her pocket, which turned out to be a directions sheet. “It should be only a few blocks away.”

Without further ado, I joined the girls as we walked along the street.

After a few blocks, Nodoka checked the sheet again. “It should be around here…”

I glanced around, and noticed at least hundred people lined up in front of one building.

“Uh, I guess that’s it…?” I muttered, and the girls finally noticed the line of people.

“A-are they all going to watch the concert?” Jun said out of surprise.

I scratched my head, looking at the line in awe. “Man, I didn’t expect this…”

“Ui!”

We turned to face the familiar voice. It was Yui, who was running towards us. She seemed to be wearing her school uniform, and was carrying a small plastic grocery bag.

“Jun-chan, Nodoka-chan and Eiji-kun, thanks for coming!”

“It’s going to be a big hit,” Jun said to her.

I nodded. “You’re gonna be famous at this rate.”

Yui squirmed a bit, seemingly flattered by our words.

“Hey, look. Backstage pass!” she said, showing us the said thing on her arm.

Something struck me as odd. “Gal, you’re going to perform to hundreds of people in just a bit. Aren’t you supposed to be nervous?”

“Of course I am,” she cheerily said. “I’ll just eat snacks to relax!”

Nope, you’re obviously not nervous at all. Though, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

“Oh, I know! I’ll call your names on stage!” she suggested.

“D-don’t, that’ll make us nervous,” Nodoka said, trying to stop her.

Yui, however, began running towards the live house. “I’ll see you later!”

“No way in hell are you gonna call our names!” I yelled after her. I’m not sure if she heard me.

After waiting in the line for a while and showing our tickets, we finally got inside. It took a bit more waiting, and the concert finally began. First band was completely unknown to me. Nevertheless, their music was good. A bit punkish, just the way I like it. Next up was Yui and her friends. Or should I say After School Tea Time, since that’s their band’s name. And oh boy, did I love their performance. I couldn’t help but jump and wave around like a drunk moron at a club, just like most of the audience did. The music rocked, the light effects rocked… shit, everything was just fucking awesome!

A bit over an hour later the concert was over. It was an experience I wouldn’t soon forget. As I mentioned before, I’ve been to live houses a few times. At those times, however, the bands were professionals. It’s nice to get to see indie bands for a change. As we got outside, the sun had already set. We got the idea to wait for Yui and her friends to get a change to congratulate them. However, we were joined by a woman, who I actually recognized. She was Sawako, the club’s advisor. Her attire was, well, kinda punkish and wild, but I guess that’s just her personality, so I won’t judge her for that. Besides, I like punk.

A bit more waiting later, the girls finally exited the live house.

“Good work,” Sawako congratulated them, getting their attention.

Yui was positively surprised. “Ah, Sawa-chan-sensei! You guys waited for us?” Just what the hell is it with Yui and weird nicknames?

Ui and Jun suddenly ran up to her, and I decided to follow them. Each of us gave the girls our congratulations. They all seemed pleased. However, a ruckus coming from the live house’s entrance caught our attention. At least a dozen people were cheering one of the bands who had performed earlier. The band’s name was Love Crysis, if I remember correctly.

“Thank you for everything! Let’s perform together again!” Yui yelled at them.

“Sure, we’re looking forward to it!” one of the band members yelled back.

But, to my complete surprise, her gaze reached me, and she just started at me, a bit surprised looking. Is there something on my face? Wait, it couldn’t be…?

The girl, however, soon smiled. “So, it’s really Sugimoto-san?”

“Wha…?” I managed to say in the midst of my confusion.

I felt a nugle on my shoulder. It was Tainaka.

“Don’t you recognize her? You were in the same class for three years,” she said to me.

“We were…?” I muttered, digging my memory. Then, I finally got it.

“Ah, I remember now! You’re Maki, you played in our junior high’s band!” I said to the girl, still a bit surprised.

“I couldn’t believe Ritsu-chan when she told me you had mended your ways,” she said with a grin. “It’s nice to see you got rid of those two idiots and found better friends.”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “No way I’d abandon those two clowns.”

With a smile, she waved her hand. “Well, happy New Year!”

“Yeah, you too.”

New Year, huh… I glanced at my watch. Five more hours until the year would change. Guess I better head home… At least that’s what I thought, until I felt a pull on my sleeve. It was Ui.

“We were planning on spending the night at our house. Would you like to come, too?” she asked me.

The question caught me completely off guard. “Huh, me?”

She nodded.

I was bit unsure. “Well, is it alright with others?”

“I’m sure it is, since you’re my friend, after all,” she said, cocking her head with a smile.

“…I see…” I muttered, digging out my phone. “I’ll have to ask my parents.”

I called my mom. As she answered, I asked her if it’d be okay if I spent the night at a friend’s place. She was okay with it, as long as I wouldn’t do anything stupid, like drink alcohol. I’m pretty sure there’s no such danger at Hirasawa residence…

We sat around the living room’s kotatsu, eating a delicious hotpot. As I finished my meal, I laid down on the floor, since I didn’t have much to contribute to their conversations. However, Sawako tried to force me into the conversation.

“What do you think, Sugimoto-san? Which would suit Azusa better?” she asked me, holding two very, very, very revealing pieces of clothing.

Keep calm, Sugimoto. Calm down. Don’t let her to get the best of you.

“…I don’t know, hard choice,” I muttered, turning my gaze back to the ceiling.

“D-don’t say anything so embarrassing, you idiot!” Nakano yelled at me.

I quickly sat up. “Then what the hell was I supposed to say!?” I yelled back at her.

The girls just laughed at our quarreling, making us both back down. Everyone finally calmed down when Ui announced that the New Year’s noodles were ready. Only a single taste was enough, and I immediately fell in love. With the food, I mean. It was god damn delicious. As I emptied my bowl, I noticed Ui beckoning me to follow her to the kitchen, so I followed her there.

“Um, are you going to stay up with them?” she asked.

I leaned back to see the group of girls, who were talking with each other. I turned back to Ui, and smiled a bit.

“Nah, I’d feel myself an outcast. Besides, I’m getting kinda tired.”

“I was thinking about going to sleep, too. But before that, I’ll set you a futon in my room,” she said, and walked to the stairs.

I spent some minutes looking out the kitchen’s window. The town was still lively due to the New Year’s. After having enough of that, I took one last glance at the club, and walked upstairs. I leaned against the wall, waiting for Ui to be done. A bit later she walked out of her room. However, she didn’t notice me standing there, so she walked right at me, striking her forehead against my chin.

“Ah, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you! Are you alright?” she asked me, holding her forehead.

“I was just about to ask you the same,” I muttered, holding my chin.

Ui had changed into her pajamas, and had taken her ponytail off, making her look like her sister. I walked into her room, and noticed a futon on the floor. Taking off everything save for my t-shirt and jeans, I slipped inside the futon. Ui turned off the lights, getting in her own bed. Minutes passed, and I still couldn’t fall asleep. The muffled sounds of Yui and her friends having fun could be heard. I glanced towards Ui’s bed, and noticed Ui looking back at me.

After staring at each other for a bit, she chuckled. “I guess it’s hard to sleep, since the rest are so lively downstairs.”

I smiled, turning my gaze back to the ceiling. “It’s been two years since I first visited this place.”

“Oh, has it really?” Ui muttered, a bit surprised. “Time sure flies.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I wonder what the upcoming year will bring us?”

“Hopefully, a lot of fun moments, just like these,” she said.

“Wouldn’t that be nice…” I muttered, and yawned.

I’m not sure how long we chatted. At some point, we just stopped, both dozing off. Two years… man, that’s a long time. During that, I’ve made a lot of new, great friends. Maki’s and my small conversation earlier today proved something to me: No matter what kind of a past you have, as long as you work to redeem yourself, people will forgive and forget. At least the good kind of people.

Chapter Text

As the day of the Winter Festival draws near, most of the school is busy making preparations, which include constructing stalls, making decorations, and rehearsing performances. Almost everything is located indoors, save for a few stalls outside, which are there mostly to indicate that ‘yes, there’s a festival going on, come on in’.

It was lunch break. After enjoying a sandwich and a cup of coffee at the club room, I grabbed Patricia (which I’d brought to school a month ago) and headed to the second floor of the west wing, where I met up with my bandmates. For the past week, we’ve been rehearsing the song daily. This time wasn’t any different.

The senior was the lead guitarist and the vocalist. The girl played keyboard, while the two other students played bass and drums, respectively. And I, of course, was the rhythm guitarist. Even though none of them were in any music related clubs, they were still good. I felt myself inferior amongst them.

As the sounds of the instruments died down, the senior guy, who was standing in the front of everyone else, turned to look at me and nodded.

“Very good, Sugimoto-san. You’re a great student,” he complimented me.

I couldn’t help but chuckle sheepishly. “H-heh, really now?”

“You know,” the girl said suddenly. “There’s something that I noticed.”

As we all directed our attention to her, she continued.

“Sugimoto-san, I saw you lip syncing along the vocals.”

“Y-you did?” I said, flinching a bit.

The senior seemed surprised, and soon faced me.

“How’s your singing voice?” he asked me out of nowhere.

Trying my best to keep my cool, I asked back: “Why? What’s up?”

“Just thinking. It’d be good to have a backup singer in case I get sick or something,” he said with a shrug.

Me singing, huh…? Not sure how that thought tastes in my mouth.

“Eh, I don’t know…” I muttered, glancing down towards my guitar. “I’m not much of a singer, though I don’t mind doing it.”

The senior seemed to think something for a while, until he picked up the microphone stand in front of him and carried it over to me.

“Let’s give it a try.”

I blinked couple of times. “Wha—?”

“You remember the lyrics, right? Or do you need a cheat sheet?” he asked me.

“I, uh… N-no, yeah, I remember them,” I stuttered. Now this is something I wasn’t prepared for.

The senior nodded to himself. “Alright, then. Once more!”

He gestured to the drummer to start the song. I felt like objecting, maybe even fleeing, but my thinking was cut short when the drummer set the beat, and we started playing. Ah, fuck it, let’s just get this over with. We reached the point where the vocals would start, and I began singing.

Hours passed by, and soon the classes were over. As usual, I packed my stuff, waited for my friends to do the same, and we stepped out of the classroom, heading towards the basement. However, I felt thirsty, so we decided to stop by the cafeteria to buy some juice.

“So, let me get this straight…” Ichiro muttered as I fed a coin into the vending machine. “They actually made you the lead singer?”

I nodded, keeping my attention on the machine. Hmm, I’m feeling like strawberry juice today…

“Did the previous singer suck that much?” Tadaaki quipped.

“No, not at all. It was actually his idea,” I explained as I grabbed my juice box. “The dude must’ve been drunk or something.”

Tadaaki slipped his hands into his coat’s pockets. “Okay, seriously speaking, your singing is not half bad, if my memory from our karaoke night serves right. So don’t stress about it.”

“Easy for you to say,” I muttered, sipping my juice.

I picked my bag from the floor, ready to head to the club room, when Ichiro gave me a tap on the shoulder.

“Yo, there’s a group of girls there, staring at you and whispering,” he said quietly, looking somewhere behind us.

I glanced over my shoulder, finding the said girl group at the back of the cafeteria, a good 10 meters or so from us. There was four of them, and they seemed to be freshmen.

I shrugged. “So?” Staring and whispering isn’t anything new to me.

“They’re not whispering maliciously,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “How the hell can you tell that?”

He shook his head. “It just doesn’t feel like it. They’re not grinning nor giggling.”

I kept looking at him for a while, and sighed. “Well, if you really want to find out…”

Quickly turning around, I walked to the girls in a swift pace, catching them completely off guard. It took some seconds for the guys to follow after me.

“Got something to say?” I asked the girls with serious tone.

It was quiet for a bit, until one of the girls gathered up some courage and opened her mouth: “Um, is it true that you’re dating?

It was my turn to be caught off guard. “I, uh… what? With whom?”

“A… a girl from that all-girls high school,” she clarified.

“No,” I said swiftly, shaking my head. “I’m not dating anyone. Who told you that?”

I was clearly confused. However, I soon remembered something. Last autumn, when Hironaka had asked me to be the rhythm guitarist, and I stopped by the sports ground to give her my answer. When I was leaving, I heard her saying something very strange to her fellow club members. That I was dating someone.

I figured it out as the girl was trying to come up with an answer. “…it was Hironaka, right?” I asked.

The girl’s surprised expression indicated that I was right. After a bit, she slowly nodded.

One thing came to my mind: “…now, why would she tell that? Did you happen to ask her about it?”

“I… I can’t tell,” the girl muttered, fiddling with her uniform’s sleeve, and glancing elsewhere.

“Yes you can,” I said, my tone becoming even more frustrated. “I’m sick of people bullshitting about me behind my back.”

“Dude, calm down,” Ichiro said, walking in front of me.

Tadaaki put his hand on my shoulder. “People have been talking shit about you for years, and you haven’t given a single shit, so why start now?”

I brushed his hand off with an angry sigh. “Because no one has ever claimed that I’d be dating.”

“Well what the fuck does that matter?” Tadaaki asked, throwing his hands to his sides.

“It does fucking matter! I don’t care if people call me an asshole, dickhead, human trash, and such, because at the end of the day, I’m all that. But when someone is spreading false information that might mess with my changes of getting a girl, I won’t stand for it!” I yelled at Tadaaki, poking him in the chest all the way.

I glanced at the girls, who seemed a bit frightened. Looking around the cafeteria, I noticed at least a dozen of confused stares directed at me. God damn it, my temperament got the best of me.

“Fuck this,” I muttered as I quickly began making my leave, my friends hurrying to catch up with me.

“Y-yo, dude, where are you going now?” Ichiro asked.

Keeping my gaze forward, I answered in a low voice: “To find that bitch Hironaka.”

We were passing through the west wing to get to the backdoor which would lead to the sports ground. However, just as we got to the end of the hallway, one of the classroom doors slid open. I didn’t pay it much mind, until I recognized the student stepping out of the room. It was Hironaka. Getting a quick glimpse inside the classroom, I recognized it as the student council’s meeting room. Despite her club activities, she’s still a member of the student council, so of course she’d be meeting with those self-entitled asshats, with the festival drawing near and all.

She didn’t seem to notice me. I waited until she closed the door, and took a step closer, dropping my bag on the floor.

“Hironaka, what the fuck is this bullshit!?” I yelled at her, making her flinch a bit, and getting her attention.

“Why have you been spreading lies about me dating someone?”

Clearly confused, she took some second to answer: “You… you mean you aren’t?”

Being careful not to snap, I took a calming breath and relaxed my frowning face. “No, of course I’m not. What makes you think that?”

She scratched the back of her ear, her gaze drifting to the side. “Well, you know… back in the junior high—”

I raised my hand to interrupt her. “Let me guess: two girls came to pick me up, which would logically mean that I’m dating one on them, right?”

“Um, actually… I’ve seen you hanging out with them from time to time,” Hironaka muttered.

Oh? Makes me wonder who else has seen us. Whatever, it’s not important right now.

I crossed my arms with a sigh. “Regardless, we’re not dating.”

My friends had been standing behind me, listening quietly to our conversation, until Ichiro opened his mouth: “You know, there’s still something I don’t get.”

Oh god, please don’t make me explain my friendship with Ui and Jun to him. That dude thinks with his dick, he’d never accept the fact that a guy can have gal friends without any romantic interests.

“…why did you tell those freshmen girls about it?” he continued, looking at Hironaka.

“Huh? Oh, yeah,” I muttered to myself, and turned back to Hironaka. “Why did you tell them that?”

“I… I can’t tell,” she said under her breath, glancing downwards.

I clicked my tongue. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, not this shit again.”

My blurt caused Hironaka to snap. “Alright, if you really want to know, one of them had a crush on you, you idiot!”

“A… what?”

Frowning and blushing from anger, she continued: “And they knew I was acquainted with you, so they asked me to deliver a letter to you! That’s when I told them about… you know.”

Having hard time to believe my ears, I turned to look at my friends, who were just as speechless as I was. Shit, and there I was, making those girls scared with my outbursts…

As I was busy trying to make sense of all this, the door suddenly slid open. Some four-eyed student, possibly a student council member, stepped into the hallway, looking extremely annoyed.

“Excuse me, but we’re trying to discuss important subjects here, so could you please go elsewhere with your love triangle drama?”

“Piss off,” I muttered to him as I crouched down to pick my bag.

From the corner of my eye, I could see a pair of legs angrily walking closer. “Pardon me!? What did you just sa—”

As he got right next to me, I quickly stood up, grabbing him by the collar. I’d had right about enough of this shit.

“I said piss off, dickhead,” I growled at him. “Or the student council’s next important subject will be ‘how will we get that blood splatter off the hallway’s floor?’.”

I kept him in my grasp, waiting for him to give me an excuse to do something awful. As I noticed that he wouldn’t be saying anything anytime soon, I pushed him aside, and began heading towards the lobby.

“Come on, let’s get moving before a teacher comes,” I muttered to my friends, who were already following me.

As we got to the shoe lockers, Ichiro asked me: “So, uh, what will you do with that freshman girl?”

“…I don’t know,” I muttered, changing my shoes as fast as I could. “I don’t fucking know anything at all.”

We spent the rest of the day hanging around the side alleys. I was prepared to face consequences for my actions the next day, but to my complete surprise, no one mentioned it. I’m not sure, but I had a feeling Hironaka had something to do with it. Maybe she didn’t want her song’s rhythm guitarist to get in trouble so close to the festival? Or maybe that particular four-eyed guy wasn’t her favorite person to begin with? Well, whatever. As long as I don’t have to deal with teachers, it’s fine by me.

Couple of days later it was the day of the Winter Festival. Because my performance wouldn’t be happening until afternoon, I could catch a few extra hours of sleep. I also managed to convince Ui to sit through the morning classes, so she wouldn’t skip the whole day just for my performance. I got to the school around noon. The stalls were open, the decorations were up, and people were hustling and bustling about, students and visitors alike. Even though it wasn’t anything as great as Sakuragaoka’s festival, it was still refreshing.

I stopped by my class to get marked as attendant, after which I headed straight to the club room. On my way there, I noticed how the latter half of the west wing’s hallway was closed from the visitors. Well, there doesn’t seem to be many activities in the west wing, anyway. I walked down to the basement and stepped into the club room, where my two friends were already hanging out.

“…that’s it?” Ichiro asked as he laid his eyes on me.

“The hell are you talking about?” I muttered, walking over to the kitchen area.

Tadaaki chuckled. “We just thought that you’d dress up fancy, since you’d be performing and everything.”

I smirked as I made myself a cup of coffee. “You wish. No, I’ll just stick with my school uniform.”

Dress up fancy, huh? Yui and her club members have always been dressed fancily during their festival performances. Maybe I should’ve asked Sawako to come up with some clothing for us? Or, well, she’d probably make me pants with the crotch portion missing or something.

I got my cup of steaming coffee ready, and took a glance at my watch. “Well, we still got a good two hours to waste.”

Ichiro understood what I meant, and walked over to a shelf. “Gangsters or aliens?”

“…got anything with both?” Tadaaki asked half-seriously.

Ichiro chuckled as he began browsing the vast variety of VHS cases on the shelf, until he flinched, and pulled out a single case. “…y-yes, actually. What the hell…?”

We spent the next hour watching couple of episodes of some very weird, but surprisingly interesting, 80’s show about, well, gangsters versus aliens. During the past two years, we’ve watched dozens of shows and movies stored in that shelf, and so far none of them have managed to disappoint us.

As the third episode began playing, I felt my phone vibrating. Checking the lid’s screen, I noticed that the caller was Ui. I got up from the couch and headed to the kitchen area to answer the call.

“Yo.”

“Hey, Eiji-kun!” Ui greeted me. “I just wanted to inform you that Jun-chan, Azusa-chan and I are currently on our way there.”

“A… A-A-Azusa?” I stuttered confusedly. “Uh, why is Nakano coming along?”

“She just wants to see you playing guitar,” she explained.

I could hear Jun’s faint yell from the background: “She doesn’t believe you can play at all!” It was followed by angry retorts, possibly from Nakano.

Quietly chuckling to myself, I asked: “Alright, fair enough. How long until you get here?”

“Um, we just passed your neighborhood a moment ago, so I’d say about few minutes.”

“Okay, call me when you get here,” I instructed.

After saying our goodbyes, we ended the call. I turned to face the couches, and noticed my friends looking at me. Fucking hell, can a guy get any privacy around here?

“You got someone coming over?” Tadaaki asked.

After thinking for a bit, I slowly nodded. “Yeah.”

“Who?” Ichiro asked.

“Just couple of people I know,” I said, making vague movements with my hand.

Wanting to change the subject, I suggested: “Want to go roam around? I could really go for some stall snacks right now.”

Still looking a bit suspicious, Ichiro shrugged and got up. “Okay, fine by me.”

“You go on ahead,” Tadaaki said to him. “I’ve got something to discuss with our little rockstar here.”

After a few tense seconds, Ichiro finally nodded and made his leave. “Alright, whatever, keep your secrets.”

Tadaaki waited until he could hear Ichiro climbing the stairs up, and turned to face me.

“So, about those ‘couple of people you know’… They’re those gals, right?”

A bit surprised by his right answer, I nodded. “Yeah, how did you figure it out?”

“Dude, I’ve known you for most of my life. It’s easy to read you,” he said with a smirk.

“…yeah, okay, whatever you say,” I muttered, looking at him from the corner of my eye.

Tadaaki just kept grinning at me for a while, until he stood up. “Well, they’re your friends, so I don’t have a problem with it.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, moving to the door. “I’m just thinking how Ichiro will react.”

Tadaaki seemed to realize this. “Oh, yeah, that’s going to be a problem…”

We kept standing in front of the door for a while, thinking about the problem, until I shrugged and stepped out. “Well, we’ll see about that later.”

We walked through the basement’s narrow corridor, but as we got to the stairs, we could hear some faint ruckus coming from upstairs, so we ran the stairs up. As we got to the ground floor, we were met with a dozen students, who were gathered around a fistfight. One of the fighters was Ichiro. The other one was a guy named Tsukuda. If there was a delinquent worse than me, it definitely was him. From what I’ve heard, he’s actually managed to get himself arrested once, and doesn’t spend much time in school. Most of the onlooking students formed a wall that blocked the view to the rest of the west wing, not sure if intentionally.

“Hey, hey! Knock it off!” Tadaaki yelled, taking a step closer to the fight.

However, two other students stepped in front of him, pushing him back. “Mind your own business!”

He didn’t manage to get much farther than that. Only thing he could do is watch Ichiro getting is ass kicked. I know that Ichiro is good at fighting, but now he seemed to be losing. His nose was bleeding like a faucet, and he could barely stand. Yes, right now it was just him versus Tsukuda, but who knows what the situation was a minute ago. When you want to hurt someone, you don’t play by the rules. I’m not going to, either.

“Enough,” I muttered under my breath, taking a step closer.

Those two students blocked my way. “And where do you think you’re going, huh?”

I didn’t have time for this. As fast as I could, I crabbed one guy by the side of his head, and with all my power struck it against the other one’s head. Now that these two were busy moaning about their heads, I could step closer to the fight. Just to be sure, I gave a nasty glance to the other onlookers. They didn’t seem to care to intervene, meaning that those two were Tsukuda’s only henchmen.

With a swift move, I kicked Tsukuda in the back of his knee, causing him to fall to the floor. I used this opportunity to pull Ichiro aside.

“Out of the way.”

He just cleared the blood off his nose. “No way I’m leaving this fight.”

“Fuck off already!” I yelled at him.

After hesitating for a while, he took a few careful steps backwards towards Tadaaki. Tsukuda’s henchmen tried to pull him back to the ring, but Tadaaki was quick to protect him. After receiving a few of his punches, the henchmen decided to retreat. I turned back to Tsukuda, who had gotten himself back on his feet. He was grinning, almost chuckling.

“Huh, you want some too?” he said to me, after which he took a running step, throwing his fist at me.

Since he was clearly exhausted from trying to beat Ichiro, I managed to dodge his punch.

“No, not particularly,” I answered under my breath, as I threw my own fist, burying it deep into his stomach.

Having all of his air driven out of his lungs, he crouched down a bit, holding his stomach. I used the opportunity to give him a kick to the face with my knee. And now that his head was back up, I gave him a few punches to the face, the last one making him fall on the floor.

Grunting and swearing between his teeth, he tried to get up, but I interrupted the process by stomping him in the chest. I kept my foot in place, crouching down. I kept my eyes locked on his, trying to come up with something cheesy movie line. As I didn’t come up with anything, I just smirked.

“Enough for today?”

“…yeah,” he muttered, turning his head to the side. Nice to know that there are people who realize when it’s better to back down.

Staying there for a few seconds more, I slowly backed away from him. Beckoning Tadaaki and Ichiro to follow me, we began heading towards the lobby.

“…it’s that psychopath from Yukinokawa!” I could hear someone say behind me.

I didn’t pay it any mind, and instead focused on shaking my hand to dull the pain on my knuckles. Only a few steps later I heard someone behind me calling my name. The voice was familiar. I halted, and, after hesitating for a couple of seconds, turned around.

It was Jun.

She was just standing there, her school uniform covered by her pink coat. She looked… shocked, to say the least.

After staring at each other for a moment, I slowly opened my mouth: “…why are you here?”

“Well, Ui-chan insisted on finding you by ourselves, so we spread around to look for you. And… I happened to hear you yelling, so I ran here, and…” she said, her voice turning into mumbling towards the end.

Anxiety kept growing inside me. The scenery around Jun began twisting and blurring into obscurity. Shit, this is the one thing I didn’t want to happen!

“…how much did you see?”

Glancing elsewhere, she muttered: “…too much.”

Fuck.

“…but…”

I raised my gaze, and found Jun standing right in front of me, resting her hand on my shoulder.

“…you were protecting your friend. That’s something I won’t judge,” she explained, a small smile on her face.

My vision started to clear up. I didn’t feel like throwing up anymore. My anxiety was replaced by a slight embarrassment.

“I… uh, see…” I muttered for an answer, still a bit staggered.

“Uh, who are you?” Ichiro suddenly asked, breaking the tense silence.

Jun didn’t have time to answer, since Tadaaki took control of the situation: “She’s Eiji’s friend. Now come on, let’s go see the nurse and get you patched up.”

“Huh? Uh, yeah, sure,” Ichiro muttered, holding his bleeding nose.

Jun and I stood there, watching as Tadaaki escorted Ichiro away. After some seconds, I turned back to her.

“So, uh, where are the rest of the gals?”

“Oh, they went looking for you on the opposite side of the school. I’ll call them and tell them to meet us in the lobby,” she said, digging her phone out of her pocket.

As she was in the middle of browsing her contact list, I interrupted her: “Hey, uh…”

When she directed her attention towards me, I continued: “…you mind keeping that thing a secret?”

She realized what I was talking about, and nodded with a smile. “You can count on me.”

A bit later, we were standing in the lobby. As Jun was scanning the crowd for Ui and Nakano, I tried my best to ignore all the stares caused by my companion. Soon enough, Jun spotted the duo, got their attention and they walked over to us. Man, if those coats weren’t covering their school uniforms, they’d probably be swarmed by a bunch of guys.

“Hey, Eiji-kun,” Ui greeted me.

I, however, just crossed my arms with a frown. “Didn’t we agree on you calling me when you get here?”

“W-well, yeah, but I wanted to surprise you…” she muttered, a bit embarrassed.

I kept glaring at her for a while, until my frown turned into a smile. I then turned my gaze to Nakano. As she noticed me looking at her, she probably felt obligated to say something: “Uh, hey.”

“Well hello, Nakano-san. Skipping school, I see,” I quipped to her.

“I don’t want to hear that from you,” she muttered, blushing out of annoyance. “I just want to see what bands this school has to offer.”

“Okay, fair enough,” I said, still smiling, and checked my watch. “Well, still an hour before my performance. Want to roam around or something?”

The idea seemed to suit them just fine, and we spent the next moments walking around the school, checking out different stalls, and eating snacks. After we ran out of things to do, I decided to lead them to the club room. To the west wing, down the stairs, end of the corridor.

This is a club room? It’s more like a mancave!” Jun blurted out.

“That’s the whole point,” I explained as I walked further into the room. “It’s just disguised as a club room, so the school’s paying for all the fun.”

I’m not sure if my companions are coffee drinkers, so I checked the fridge for beverages. Ah, cans of soda, great! I grabbed a few cans, and as I turned around, I spotted Nakano crouched down in front of the shelf. She seemed to be browsing the countless CD’s and cassette tapes.

“There’s a lot of great albums here, even indie ones,” she muttered, seemingly astonished.

“Yup. The club’s Founder clearly loved the end of the past century,” I noted as I began distributing the soda cans to the girls.

“And you still want to call this a Coffee Club…?” Nakano muttered to herself as she walked over to the couches, taking a seat next to her friends.

Suddenly, Tadaaki stepped through the door, taking us all by surprise.

“Yo, Eiji. Sorry I took so long, the nurse made me escort Ichiro home,” he told me.

“Huh? Uh, oh, okay,” I managed to say.

It was at that moment when he finally realized the girls’ presence.

“Oh, hey,” he greeted them like it was nothing, and proceeded to crash down on the couch. Man, how can you be so level-headed?

It was quiet for a bit. The girls were too unsure to say anything, while Tadaaki was just casually checking his fingernails. Ugh, guess I have to do something.

“So, uh. Gals, this is Tadaaki. Tadaaki, these are Ui-san, Jun-san and Nakano-san,” I introduced.

After they gave a few causal greetings to each other, I decided to take a seat next to Tadaaki, just in case I had to punch him for making some stupid remark. Just as I feared, he was eyeing Ui.

“So, you’re the Hirasawa gal who’s been hogging my best friend, huh?” he said to her.

“Eh?” Ui let out a surprised sound. “Um, I—”

Her sentence was interrupted by Tadaaki’s hearty laugh. “Relax, I’m just kidding. Nice to finally meet you.”

Taking some seconds to recover, Ui answered: “Yeah, likewise.”

Alright, introductions are done. Now what? The girls still didn’t seem to be eager to talk. Tadaaki, however, seemed a bit puzzled. He soon turned to face me.

“…by the way, I don’t think I’ve ever asked this, but how did you two exactly meet?”

That… was actually a pretty good question. A no-good delinquent guy and a sweet and caring gal, both living in completely different parts of town, both going to different schools, both having pretty much nothing in common. I’m surprised he hasn’t asked me that earlier. Sure, I could’ve just said something vague, but a part of me wanted to see their reactions if I told them the whole story, and a bit of extra.

Clearing my throat, I leaned a bit forward. “So, it was autumn, couple of years ago…”

And I ended up telling it.

“…saved from a group of drunks? Man, that sounds like a cliché,” Tadaaki quipped with a chuckle.

“I remember Ui-chan mentioning about it, but I never heard any details,” Jun said.

I glanced over at Nakano, who was just quietly processing my story.

“Well, yeah, it’s true,” Ui said with a faint blush.

I could hear approaching footsteps, and soon the club room’s door opened. Hironaka peeked inside.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san, there you are. Your performance will start in 15 minutes, you’re needed behind the stage,” she told me.

However, she soon spotted the three girls sitting right across from me.

“…uh, excuse me…” she muttered under her breath as she retracted her head and closed the door.

Trying my best to control my laughter, I quickly stood up. “Alright, then. Let’s get moving.”

I walked to the corner of the room to get my guitar out of it’s case. As I did that, Ui ran up to me.

“Ah, so this is Patricia. It looks cool!” she said with a smile.

Tadaaki cocked his head out of confusion. “Huh? Patricia?”

“Don’t ask,” I answered swiftly.

We got back to the ground floor, and walked to the lobby. I’d have to take a different door to get behind the stage.

“Okay, then. This is it,” I muttered, looking at all the people entering the auditorium.

“Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine!” Ui cheered me up.

Tadaaki gave me a thumbs-up. “Yeah. Your singing is actually great, so you’ll definitely be okay.”

Ui flinched, and turned to face Tadaaki. “Eh, singing?”

“Eiji-kun is going to sing too?” Jun yelled out in surprise.

“Oh, yeah, I am,” I said, scratching my head and glancing elsewhere.

Jun’s surprised expression turned into a grin as she patted her school bag. “Good thing I brought a video camera along.”

“It’s mean to make him nervous at this point,” Nakano muttered to her.

Chuckling to himself, Tadaaki gave me a light push on the shoulder. “Go on, then.”

“Okay, okay!” I yelled nervously, making my leave. Fucking hell, some people can be real dickheads!

As I got to the backstage, I was instructed to hand my guitar over to some organizers, who took it away somewhere. I spotted my bandmates sitting on a bench not too far away, so I walked over to them. We had our final discussion about the song.

“So, Sugimoto-san, you’re up for this?” the senior asked.

I nodded. “Yes. I’ve come this far, so it’d be stupid to back down now.”

With a smile, he gave me a pat on the shoulder.

“It’s a shame I’ll be graduating soon. I would’ve loved to play with someone like you.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, or if I should say anything at all. I guess it didn’t matter, since we were soon interrupted by Hironaka.

“Alright, people. Your turn to take the stage.”

“Roger that. Come on, guys, let’s do this!” the senior cheered us on.

The girl threw her fist in the air. “Yeah!”

The two other students high-fived each other.

Setting aside the last of the doubts in my head, I punched myself in the palm. “Let’s rock!”

We got up to the stage. The curtain was down. We walked to our instruments, putting the straps on, and checking the tunes. I couldn’t help but swallow nervously as I laid my eyes upon the microphone stand right in front of me. An announcement sounded, and the curtain started to rise. I haven’t smoked in years, but right now I definitely felt like smoking. As the applause quieted down, we began playing.

Ten minutes later, I finally got back to the lobby, carrying my guitar. A drop of sweat was running down my brow. I felt both exhausted and refreshed at the same time. As I scanned the crowd, I managed to spot Tadaaki and the girls, who in turn spotted me, and walked over to me.

“Dude, that was sick!” Tadaaki yelled out, giving me a tap on the shoulder.

Ui walked in front of me, a shine on excitement in her eyes. “You’re a great singer, Eiji-kun! It was beautiful!”

“It was awesome!” Jun complimented me.

Nakano nodded. “It sure was!”

My head was almost spinning from all the compliments, and my face was most likely blushing. I thanked them all sincerely.

We stopped by the club room, where Tadaaki and I gathered our stuff, and headed outside.

“Oh, let’s go to my place! I could prepare something tasty,” Ui suggested.

I chuckled, muttering under my breath: “All of your foods are tasty…”

I turned to face Tadaaki. He seemed to think about it for a while, until he just smirked, slipping his hands into his pockets.

“Count me out. I got to go check on our friend,” he said, waving us goodbye, and leaving.

The rest of us began heading towards Ui’s house. As promised, Ui made a lot of delicious snacks, and Yui was thrilled to finally see Patricia. She actually carried her own guitar, Giita, downstairs to ‘meet her new friend’. It was stupid, but sweet at the same time. For some reason, it kinda reminded me of myself introducing Tadaaki to the girls. It went better than I expected. Maybe I could invite him to drink tea with us sometime?

Chapter Text

“…you see anything?” Ichiro whispered to Tadaaki, who was peeking around the corner.

He hold two of his fingers up, motioning us to stay put, until he lowered his hand. “Looks clear. Come on, let’s move.”

Silently but swiftly, we moved through the third floor’s hallway, finally reaching the door to the elevated walkway. Opening the door, we stepped on the walkway, welcomed by a cool spring breeze.

Our third, and final, school year began today. None of us cared to listen to the principal’s tedious and boring speech for the third time, so we decided to skip the morning assembly entirely. However, the basement was locked, and couple of teachers were patrolling the hallways to catch no-good rascals like us. But if we stayed in the walkway’s blind spot, we wouldn’t be spotted.

Leaning against the chain-link fence, we scoped out the surrounding neighborhood. After a bit of silence, I looked at my friends.

“What’re we gonna do this year?”

Couple of weeks goes by pretty quickly, when you think about it. It took me some time to fix my sleep schedule, and even longer to start paying attention during classes. I even wrote some notes today, can you believe it? Anyway, I decided to not go to the club room after the classes. I had saved enough of my allowance to buy a new game, which I’d been waiting for since last year. So, right as the classes ended, I headed downtown. I seriously hope that the local game store has the game in stock, or I’m going to be seriously pissed off…

Approximately half an hour later I stepped out of the game store, holding my newest purchase in my hand. A western, post-apocalyptic RPG. I’ve heard good things about this one, and I generally like western RPG’s more than the Japanese ones. With a satisfied nod, I slipped the game case into my school bag, and was ready to head home.

“Oh, Eiji-kun! Over here”

Confused, I turned to face the voice. It was Yui, in her school uniform. She was standing on the other side of the street, waving at me. At first, I just thought she was just saying hi, but she just continued waving, as if motioning me to come closer. Still puzzled a bit, I crossed the street.

“What’s up?” I asked her.

It was at that moment I spotted a big metal case on the ground next to her, possibly a guitar case or something. She didn’t even have time to answer, as I figured out what was on her mind and shook my head.

“Nah, no way.”

It caught Yui off guard. “Bu-but I didn’t say anything yet!”

“I bet it’s related to that big, heavy-looking metal case,” I said, pointing at the said thing.

She didn’t even try to deny it, but started outright whining: “Please! It’s so heavy!”

“You’re not a child anymore…” I muttered with a frustrated sigh.

I watched Yui’s whimpering for a while, trying to decide on what to do, until I heard approaching footsteps. It was Yui’s club.

“Yui-chan! Don’t make other people do your work!” Akiyama scolded her.

Now that I had people who I could get some answers from, I pointed at the metal case, asking: “What’s the story behind this?”

“Oh, that? It’s some old guitar, we found it in the club’s storage room,” Akiyama explained. “Sawako-sensei gave us the permission to sell it, and the money would be added to the club’s funds. We’re currently heading to the music store.”

I nodded for an answer, slipping my hands into my uniform’s coat’s pockets. My fingers reached some change, which gave me an idea.

“Music store, you say?” I muttered to myself. “I mean, if you’re heading there, then I guess I could come along. I can carry that case for you, too.”

“R-really?” Yui yelled out in relief.

Kotobuki put her hands together and cocked her head. “My, what a gentleman you are.” God damn it, the least you gals could do is to not make me blush.

Nakano glanced at the case, and then at me. “You don’t really have to carry it if you don’t want to.”

“Nah, I got it,” I said confidently, crouching down to pick the case.

Alright, I’ve got to admit, it was heavy. I, however, couldn’t show any signs of weakness in front of these gals. I had a bad feeling about what would happen if I did.

“Okay, we ready to go?” I asked, trying my best to keep my poker face.

“Hold on a minute,” Akiyama said, holding some kind of pamphlet in her hand. “Girls, look at this. With a shelf, it’d be easier to organize the storage room.”

Nakano looked at the pamphlet, and noted: “There should be enough money in the club’s funds.”

So, guess we’re taking a detour through a hardware store. Well, if it gives me a change to take a break…

I mean, I would’ve loved to call it a break, but right after we got to the hardware store, the girls started playing around with everything they saw. It’s only fun when my friends and I do it, but when someone else does it, it’s only cringeworthy. I didn’t bare to witness it for any longer, so I headed to the tables near the entrance. Some minutes later, Akiyama and Tainaka joined me, the former calling Sawako, and the latter starting to fill a delivery form for the shelf.

I was leaning backwards against the table, looking at the orange sky outside the window, when I heard Akiyama walking next to me.

“So, we heard from our old schoolmates that you performed at your school’s festival couple of months ago.”

I glanced at her, and nodded. “Yeah, that I did.”

Tainaka raised her gaze from the form. “To be honest, you never struck me as a musical guy.”

“Really? I’ve been playing guitar occasionally since junior high,” I stated, and snickered soon after. “I still remember that time when the music teacher yelled at me for borrowing the guitars without permission, though I always returned them.”

Tainaka chuckled. “Oh, I remember that old fart. Mio-chan, didn’t he once pick on you for requesting left-handed instruments to the music class?”

“Ah, he did. What an idiot…” Akiyama muttered, turning her head away.

Hm, so we all have a common enemy, huh? “Yeah, well, that’s what happens when your wife leaves you and you pawn the wedding ring to buy cigarettes and whiskey.”

As I had hoped, my shitty joke caused the girls to giggle. It felt refreshing to talk about the junior high without bringing up the negative memories.

It was at that moment when Kotobuki joined us. I flinched when I looked at her; she was carrying four bags of who-knows-what. How could a teenage girl find four bags of stuff to buy from a hardware-fucking-store? And how could she even afford all that? Don’t tell me she spent all her money from her part-time job…

As we finally recovered from the shock, Akiyama mentioned about going to look for Yui and Nakano. I volunteered to do it, since I had nothing better to do. As I wandered around the hardware store, I spotted the store’s animal section. If I can’t find a teenage girl there, then I can’t find ‘em anywhere.

It took me only a minute to find Nakano. She was standing in front of a row of aquariums. In fact, she seemed to be staring at one of them. As silently as I could, I sneaked right behind her, looking over her to see what she was watching. A small, pig-nosed turtle. At least that’s what it said on the sign next to the aquarium. It was kinda cute, actually. We kept looking at the happily swimming turtle for a while, until we began hearing running steps from behind us. As Nakano turned around, she struck her head against my shoulder (man, how short she is).

Confusedly rubbing her forehead, she yelled out in surprise: “S-Sugimoto-san!? What are you—”

However, she was soon interrupted by the one who ran towards us, Yui, who grabbed her for a hug.

“Azunyan~!”

“Don’t hug me in public!” Nakano retorted. Wait, what did she mean by that?

“You guys hug in private…?” I accidentally thought out loud.

Nakano frowned as she squirmed to get out of Yui’s grasp. “N-no, you idiot. You got it all wrong!”

Scratching my cheek, I turned my head the other way, muttering: “I mean, I won’t judge you, I don’t have a problem with it. My guitar tutor’s one, too, and he’s a cool guy.”

“I’m telling you, you got it all wrong! It’s just Yui-senpai who’s doing it!” Nakano kept objecting.

“Oh…?” I murmured, and slowly remembered that it was Yui who we’re talking about. “Alright then, forget I said anything.”

Nakano was frowning out of annoyance. I bet she would’ve wanted to say something to me, but our attention was caught by Yui, who had pressed her face against the aquarium’s glass.

“What a cute soft-shelled turtle~.”

Nakano turned to face the aquarium, and spotted the small information sign next to it. “It says ‘pig-nosed turtle’, not the same thing!”

Her biology lesson fell on deaf ears. “It’s so cute I want to shove peanuts up its nose,” Yui continued on her senseless mumbling.

Trying to decide between laughing and crying, I suddenly recalled why I came here in the first place. “Oh, I almost forgot. We’re leaving soon, the rest are waiting for us at the entrance.”

Still a bit angry at me, Nakano didn’t bother to answer me, but turned to face Yui. “Come on, Yui-senpai. Let’s go.”

“Cute…~.”

Yeah, no. There’s no way that gal is moving anywhere anytime soon when she has her eyes on something that interests her. I’ve learnt it the hard way during those few times I’ve ventured outside with the Hirasawa sisters. Ui always managed to get her moving either by promising her snacks, or threatening to not give any. Right now, we didn’t have Ui available. We had to improvise.

Nakano tried pulling Yui by her wrist, but to no affair. After pondering a bit, she sighed, as if swallowing her pride, and turned to me.

“…um, would you help me with this?” she asked in a low voice.

I examined my options. Sure, I could just pull her by her wrist, but who knows, I might hurt her or something. Maybe I should pick her up and carry her…? Nah, she’s wearing a skirt. My eyes drifted to the guitar bag on her back. I noticed a carrying handle in the middle of it. This might work.

“Alright, let’s get moving,” I muttered as I grabbed the handle.

I began dragging Yui behind me. She was sliding on her heels, desperately trying to reach for the aquarium. Nakano began walking besides me, a bit dumbstruck.

“Nooo, turtle…~,” was the last thing the turtle heard Yui saying before I dragged her around the corner.

A bit later we finally got to the music store. No more carrying that metal case around.

“…man, I’m gonna be sore tomorrow,” I muttered to myself, massaging my tired shoulder.

This particular music store was familiar to me, since I bought my guitar and amplifier from here. Right now, though, I only needed some new picks and maybe some spare strings. I made my purchase, but I was curious about the guitar I’ve been hauling all the way here, so I decided to stay there until the cashier would be done estimating the guitar’s worth.  

Yui saw me packing my purchases into my school bag, and slipped closer. “Ah, good to see you’re taking care of Patricia!”

“Well, guess I have to, now that I’ve got an appetite for playing guitar,” I said with an amused snort.

“So, are you going to be performing with your band again?” she asked.

With a small sigh, I shook my head. “No, it was just a one time thing. My tutor graduated, and the rest, well, they’ve got their own interests. I don’t even remember the names of half of them.”

“Oh…” Yui muttered, looking a bit sympathetic, but soon cheered up again. “Hey, maybe you could play with us sometime!”

I shrugged. “Eh, maybe. We’ll see.”

The cashier informed that he was done with his estimation. The girls quickly gathered to the counter, while I just spectated the situation from a few meters away.

“I’d like buy it for 500,000 yens,” he said casually.

…alright, maybe I’ll slip a bit closer.

The girls asked the reason for such a high price. And oh man, did the cashier have a tale to tell. Long story short: it’s rare as fuck, and in surprisingly good condition. I… I hate to say this, but I kinda felt like grabbing the cash and making a run for it.

As we got out of the store, the sky was a darker shade of orange than before. Man, I’ve been outside for longer than I intended.

“Hey,” Akiyama suddenly called out for me. “We’re planning on going to eat something. I could offer you a meal as a thanks for carrying the guitar.”

Thinking about her offer, my eyes drifted to Tainaka, who was admiring the fat cash envelope in her hands. Damn it, that much money in someone else’s hands depresses me. Besides, I wanted to play the game I bought earlier today.  

I shook my head. “Nah, I’ve got things to take care of. Repay me some other time.”

I said my goodbyes to the girls, and began heading home. That cash is going to haunt me for some time…

“Left side, left side!” Tadaaki yelled, and gave the enemies another burst from his machine gun.

I ran to the window, only to see a squad of soldiers pushing in through the western area. “Fuck, did they detonate all the mines already!?”

I directed my rifle towards the squad, gunning down multiple of them. However, some of them managed to make their way inside, and were currently on their way here.

As I was rushing to the stairs, I suddenly heard Tadaaki’s terrified scream: “A fucking gunship!”

He directed his machine gun towards it, emptying a whole belt. However, the gunship returned the favor, giving Tadaaki a burst of its 50 caliber cannons. The rain of bullets literally cut Tadaaki in half.

“Fucking hell!” I yelled as I rushed to the window, pulling out a grenade launcher. “Get some, motherfucker!”

It only took a one, well aimed shot to take the gunship down. However, I had completely forgotten about the squads that had made their way inside the building. They soon appeared from the stairs, not giving me any mercy. I was shot into a Swiss cheese.

The game was over.

With a sigh, Tadaaki set his controller down. “Did the gunship always spawn so early?”

“No, we were just too careless,” I muttered as I stretched my back. “I’m feeling like taking a coffee break, what about you?”

“Sure,” he answered with a nod.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon. I had invited Tadaaki over to play some video games. Since I was the only one home, we could make as much noise as we wanted. As the coffee was ready, we decided to head to the porch to drink it.

Sitting on the porch’s steps and sipping my coffee, I was watching the partly clouded sky, when Tadaaki suddenly spoke to me: “So, you’ve seen that Hirasawa gal lately?”

The question took me by surprise, but I managed to keep my expression neutral. “Yeah, why?”

He just shrugged. “Just asking.”

I slowly nodded, sipping my coffee. Just as I thought, Tadaaki continued with his questions.

“Just wondering, but, have you ever met her parents?”

“…no, actually. Never,” I said, a bit surprised about my answer.

It made me think. Ui and I have been friends for over two years. I’ve visited her home almost weekly, and I’ve slept there two times, but I’ve never seen her parents. I mean, when she told me that her parents travel a lot, I didn’t expect this. On the other hand, Ui hasn’t met my parents either, but that’s because she hasn’t really visited my house.

Tadaaki was snickering to himself, which soon turned into audible laughter. I waited him to calm down, and he explained himself: “I just couldn’t help but think about the day you finally meet them. I bet you’ll be so awkward you can’t get a word out of your mouth.”

Unamused, I clicked my tongue. “Man, fuck you. I’m not that bad with people.”

“Well, you used to be,” he noted, sipped his coffee, and continued: “But not anymore. Not after you met that Hirasawa gal. Or maybe you’ve just grown as a person, I don’t know.”

I just nodded for an answer, and continued on drinking my coffee. Tadaaki, however, just didn’t care to shut his mouth.

“I think I once heard you mentioning that she’s a great cook or something. Is that the reason you visit her so frequently?” he quipped.

Man, just let me enjoy my coffee in peace… Wait a minute. What if I did something stupid?

Raising my gaze from the coffee cup towards Tadaaki, I smirked. “Want to find out?”

“Huh?” Tadaaki said, that stupid smile finally gone from his face.

“Let’s go visit her. You can get answers to your stupid questions by yourself,” I clarified.

After pondering a bit, he shrugged: “I mean, yeah, I’m fine with that, but what about her?”

I knew he was going to say that, so I quickly dug out my phone.

“Yo, I’m thinking about coming over, can my friend come too?” I slowly muttered out loud as I wrote the message.

While waiting for an answer, I gulped down the rest of my coffee. Tadaaki decided to do the same. Soon my message tone sounded, and I got a short but succinct answer.

“Of course.”

I showed it to Tadaaki. He seemed to read the short message multiple times, until he smiled.

“Okay then, lead the way,” he said confidently, and stood up.

After tidying the house up a bit, we made our leave, our destination being the Hirasawa residence. It was warm, and the air smelled nice. Soon it would be summer, which would me my last summer as a high schooler. I better make the most out of it. To be honest, I actually was kinda nervous to bring Tadaaki along, but he’s my best friend. He deserves to taste the delicious snacks I’ve been eating almost weekly.

Half an hour later we stood in front of a house, that was way too familiar to me. Tadaaki scoped the house out.

“Ah, I remember it being this one,” he noted.

We walked to the front door, where I rang the doorbell. It didn’t take long for Ui to answer the door.

“Yo,” I greeted her, raising my hand.

“Hey, Eiji-kun,” she greeted back, and turned to face Tadaaki. “Ah, and Tadaaki-san, welcome.”

He nodded. “Hi, thanks for having me.”

After taking our shoes off, Ui escorted us up to the living room. Tadaaki peered around the room, until his eyes were drawn on Yui. She was sitting at the coffee table, her upper body laying on top of it lazily.

“Oh, yeah, that’s her big sis,” I whispered to him, and he seemed to understand.

As we walked closer, I raised my leg and poked Yui on the shoulder with my toe. “Hey, make some room, will ya?”

Raising her head, she finally noticed that they were having some guests over, so she fixed her posture.

Amused by my way to handle her sister, Ui said: “Sit down and make yourselves at home. The tea is almost ready,” and headed to the kitchen.

Following her orders, I sat down at my usual spot, while Tadaaki took a seat on my left. Yui, clearly confused, was eyeing Tadaaki. He noticed it, and decided to introduce himself.

“Hi, I’m Nishikawa Tadaaki, his friend,” he said, raising his thumb towards me.

That, however, didn’t seem to be what Yui was after. “Weird hair.”

“Huh?” Tadaaki muttered.

“Are you a foreigner?” Yui asked.

Confused a bit, Tadaaki reached for his light hair and fiddled with his bangs. “Nah, my hair’s just dyed.”

It took some seconds for Yui to progress the information, until she flinched, and began outright shaking. “A-are you a hooligan?”

Raising an eyebrow, Tadaaki turned to look at me, only to find me smiling out of amusement. He quickly realized what kind of a person Yui was, and decided to handle the situation accordingly.

“No, at least not the kind that does crimes,” he explained to Yui with a smile.

This didn’t seem to help Yui at all. “B-but you’re still a hooligan?”

With a sigh, I decided to step in: “Hey, I’m a hooligan too, you know.”

She shook her head. “No, you’re not. You’re just foul-mouthed.”

I… uh… Tadaaki and I looked at each other, neither knowing how to react. However, it was at that moment when Ui peeked from the kitchen.

“Sis, you shouldn’t say things like that,” she scolded Yui. “Be nice to the guests!”

Her snacks being at stake, Yui just nodded for an answer, and quietly peered at us from the corner of her eye, a bit embarrassed looking.

“I mean, it’s not like she’s wrong,” Tadaaki whispered to me with a smirk.

“Shut it,” I whispered back, snorting amusedly.

Ui was soon done with the tea, and she carried the tray over to the coffee table. Besides tea, the tray also held some pastries, most likely homemade. She set the teacups in front of us, and sat down next to her sister, right across from me. Tadaaki picked up his tea cup, examined it a bit, and took a sip. He seemed surprised.

“…has it always been this good?” he asked me.

I took a sip out of my own cup, tasted it for a bit, and nodded. “Yeah, since the first time.”

Ui was quietly chuckling, and let out an amused sigh. “Why, thank you.”

While we continued on sipping our teas, Ui turned to Tadaaki. “If I remember correctly, Eiji-kun told me that you two have been friends since kindergarten.”

Swallowing the tea in his mouth, Tadaaki nodded. “Yup. Kinda hard to not be friends, since we live just a few streets apart.”

He then turned to look at me, and grinned. “You know, the first time we met, he was in a ditch, digging for worms.”

“W-worms?” Ui asked, confused.

“Oh, right, I remember,” I muttered, turning my gaze towards the ceiling line. “I wanted to catch some crabs from the stream.”

“Yeah. We spent the entire afternoon digging around for worms, and went crab fishing. At the end of the day, we managed to catch only a few crabs, which we decided to let go,” Tadaaki complemented my story.

I snickered. “Man, my parents were angry at me for coming home all muddy.”

Tadaaki chuckled too, sipping his tea, and staring at its surface. “Yeah, well, that’s when we began hanging out.”

Ui was smiling as she listened to our story. Yui, however, seemed to get excited.

“Oh, I also went crab fishing when I was little!” she explained.

“Well now, it seems that we have something in common,” Tadaaki quipped. “Hopefully, you had better luck than us.”

Yui just nodded with a smile. “I caught enough to fill a bathtub.”

Shocked, Tadaaki turned to face me, only to find me equally dumbstruck. How did she manage to do something that the both of us couldn’t do together? What kind of sorcery did she use? Is she the master of crabs!? Yui didn’t seem to notice our reaction, but kept just smiling goofily.

As the shock was wearing off, Tadaaki sighed, hanging his head low. “…okay, enough about crabs.” He seemed to be as depressed as I was.

Moments passed, and we had already finished our tea. I was talking with Tadaaki about some inside stuff, while he was stuffing his mouth with yet another one of Ui’s pastries. Speaking of Ui, she was quickly done with the dishes, and walked over to us.

“Would you two like to stay over for dinner? We’d be having meatloaf.”

Tadaaki slowly turned to face Ui. “…dinner?”

“…meatloaf?” I muttered, all my worried having suddenly disappeared.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Tadaaki said in a quick succession, turning back to me. “You’ve had it before?”

I nodded enthusiastically. “You bet. And I promise you, it’s damn good.”

Processing my words, Tadaaki slowly nodded, and turned back to Ui. “…alright, I guess I can stay over.”

Giggling at our reactions, Ui cocked her head with a smile. “Great! It’ll be done in about half an hour, so make yourselves comfy.”

This seemed to give Yui some sort of idea, as she excitedly jumped on her feet. “Oh, I know! I’ll show you my guitar!”

Tadaaki just smiled at her, raising his hand. “By all means.”

Satisfied, Yui ran upstairs to her room. As Ui began preparing the dinner, I noticed Tadaaki glancing around the living room, a small smile on his face.

“You know…” he whispered to me. “Now I understand.”

A small bit of uncertainty was still lingering inside me. “If you mean that I come here only to eat, then no, you don’t.”

Snickering to my answer, Tadaaki soon corrected himself: “No, of course not. What I mean is I understand what a great friend that Hirasawa gal is to you.”

We both glanced over to the kitchen, where Ui was busy with preparing food, quietly humming to herself. She had that same, warm smile on her face.

“…and I also understand what a great friend you are to her,” Tadaaki added, turning to face me. “That’s why she’s treating you so well.”

His words made me both confused and embarrassed. Tadaaki just smirked, turned his gaze upwards, and laid down on the floor.

“So, the next time you don’t have time to hang out with me, I’ll understand it completely,” he assured me from the floor.

About two years ago my biggest fear in the world was my friends finding out about Ui. But now I realize how stupid such a fear is. They’re all my friends, why should I keep one of them a secret from the rest? Or, well, maybe I’ll wait a while until introducing Ui to Ichiro, but the point still stands. Tadaaki is my best friend, and always has been. He knows me inside and out, so of course it was only a matter of time until he figured out about Ui, just as he did two years ago. Man, I don’t care how many students of Sakuragaoka I befriend, I’ll never abandon Tadaaki. Though I’d never say this out loud, he’s a dear person to me, just like Ui.

Chapter Text

It was May, and the last school day of the week. I was spending my afternoon in the club room. That place is the only reason why I would ever stay in school after the classes. I had stopped by the redundant storage room to borrow some old VHS recordings for us to watch. This one was a recording of our principal’s speech in the auditorium. I actually had watched this one previously, multiple times. It was one of my favorites.

“Huh, principal looked like that 10 years ago?” Ichiro muttered to himself.

Tadaaki snickered. “He still had some of his hair left.”

“Shush! Now comes the best part,” I said to them, and we directed all of our attention towards the TV screen.

At first, nothing seemed to be wrong. The principal was just giving a speech to the students. Suddenly, a student can be seen getting up from his seat, shaking his fist.

“This is for cutting down on the clubs’ budgets!”

Before the principal has time to react, the student hurls a liquid-filled balloon at him, striking him straight on the head. I’m not sure what the liquid is, seems to be milk. At least I hope it’s milk. All the students go nuts, an outright chaos ensues. The teachers try their best to control of the situation, but to no affair. The recording gets cut and ends. Yup, this school’s been such a shithole for the longest time. At least it provides some entertainment value.

The guys and I burst into laughter.

“F-f-fucking h-hell!” Tadaaki managed to stutter in the midst of his laugh.

Ichiro was holding his stomach, his howls being the loudest. He lost his balance, fell on the floor, and continued his laughing there.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he called out, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Rewind it, dude.”

Still chuckling, Tadaaki reached over for the VCR player. Snickering at my friends’ reactions, I suddenly felt my phone vibrating in my pocket. Someone’s calling me. I glanced at my friends, who were currently rewinding the tape with big, shitty grins on their faces. I decided to slip in the hallway to answer the call. Closing the club room’s door, I leaned against a wall, checking the phone in my hand. The caller was Ui.

“Afternoon, miss,” I answered the call with a sarcastic tone.

“Hey, Eiji-kun! I hope I didn’t interrupt anything,” Ui said.

I took a glance towards the club room’s door. I could hear my friends’ muffled laughing.

“Nah, at least nothing important. So, what’s up?”

“Do you have any plans for today? Or for tomorrow, as a matter of fact?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Eh, no, not really. Why, you got something planned?”

“Would you like to come over for a sleepover?” she asked me, the question catching me by surprise.

I mean, sure, I’ve already spent my night in the Hirasawa residence a couple of times. Regardless, I still got nervous.

As I was grinding my teeth, Ui carried on: “My sis is currently on a field trip, and I wouldn’t like to be alone. The sleepover was actually Azusa-chan’s and Jun-chan’s idea. I wanted to invite Tamiko-chan at first, but then remembered that she’s sick, so I got the idea to invite you. I mean, if you want to come.”

She gave me some time to process the question. After calming down a bit and thinking about it rationally, I couldn’t help but think about Nakano’s reaction to all this.

“Uh, are those two actually okay with me coming along?” I asked unsurely.

“Oh? Yes, of course, as long as you’d sleep in a separate room.”

Still a bit uncertain, I quickly manned up. “I want to hear it myself. Put them on the phone.”

To be honest, I’d never think of Ui as a liar. However, the matter being this delicate, I wanted to be completely certain.

Ui sounded a bit confused. “Ah, well, sure. They’re actually right here, I’ll put the phone on speaker.”

One static pop later, I could hear Jun’s cheery yell: “Hello, Eiji-kun!” The yell was so loud that I had to take the phone off my ear for a moment.

“Greetings to you, too. What about the cat girl?” I asked.

“I have a name, you know!” I could hear Nakano retorting.

I chuckled quietly. “Ah, so you’re there. So, how about it? Is Ui-san’s idea okay to you two?”

“I don’t have a problem with it,” Jun said. Well, we’ve already slept in the same room, so it makes sense.

“Me neither, as long as you sleep on the couch,” Nakano muttered.

“…alright, then. Guess it’s a plan,” I said, nodding to myself.

After discussing the schedule a bit, we said our goodbyes and ended the call. I kept looking at my phone for a few seconds until slipping it back into my pocket. I was just about to go back in the club room, but I noticed something: the laugher had stopped. Actually, it was too quiet, I didn’t even hear them talking. Somehow I knew what was going on. So, as quickly as I could, I grasped the door handle and pushed the door open with all my power. In midway, the door collided with two fat heads, creating a nice sound. I peeked behind the door, finding my two friends laying on the ground, both holding their heads.

“God damn it, you guys, can’t I have a phone call without you two trying to eavesdrop?”

Ichiro laughed nervously. “W-well, yeah, but…”

“But what?” I asked, stepping inside, and closing the door.

“…I though I heard a girl’s voice on speaker phone, so we got a bit curious.”

I glanced at Tadaaki, who immediately began defending himself: “Hey, don’t look at me! That dude just suddenly got up and pressed his ear against the door, so of course I wanted to know what he was listening to!”

Their excuses made me grin. I walked over to the TV, crouching down next to a box, and pulling out a new VHS recording.

“Well, whatever. Hm, this one I haven’t watched yet."

Many hours later I was in my room, preparing to make my leave. The sun was just about to set, the sky being more purple than orange.

“Let’s see now… book, phone charger, spare clothes, toothbrush…” I listed the stuff in my backpack. “…and, maybe a soda bottle from the kitchen. That should be everything.”

I threw the bag on my shoulder, and headed downstairs. As I was grabbing a soda bottle from the fridge, my mom, who was cleaning the dining table, noticed me.

“Oh, you’re going to your friend’s for a sleepover?”

“Yup. I’ll probably be back by tomorrow night,” I answered as I slipped the bottle into my backpack.

My dad, who was reading a newspaper in the living room, asked: “Which friend?”

“You wouldn’t know even if I told you,” I said as I walked to the foyer.

Dad, however, insisted for an answer: “Regardless.”

Not wanting to raise too much suspicion, I muttered: “Uh, Hirasawa.”

“Oh, some new friend of yours?” he asked.

“Well, no, actually. We’ve been friends for some time,” I answered, a bit of uncertainty in my voice.

I was ready for new questions. My dad, however, just mumbled something approving, and I could hear the newspaper’s page turn. With a silent sigh of relief, I began putting my shoes on. I was just about to leave, when I found my mom standing behind me.

“Your father told me to give you this, in case you and your friend decide to go somewhere,” she said, handing me a 5000 yen note.

Surprised a bit, I accepted the bill. “Oh, uh, thanks.” I didn’t have anything but small change with me, so this’ll definitely come in use.

Saying my goodbyes, I exited the house, and began making my way.

It was already dark when I finally got to the Hirasawa residence. The lights on the second floor were lit. I just stood there, staring at the front door. I mean, sure, I could just ring the doorbell as I usually do. Or maybe I’ll just walk right in, taking them by surprise. That’d be fun. Wait… By surprise…? I took a few steps backwards, glancing upwards towards the balcony on top of the (carless) carport. It was enclosed with about two meter tall wooden fence.

“…what if…” I muttered to myself, walking right under the balcony.

As anyone would guess, the balcony was simply too high. I’d need some sort of platform. Looking to my left, I saw that same old high concrete fence. Never before had I paid it much mind, but right now it could be useful. There was a meter wide gap between the fence and the house. Not sure if I can make that jump, especially if I have to reach the top of the wooden fence… Wait a second, there’s a god damn tree between the two! It wasn’t that tall, barely reaching the top of the balcony’s fence.

I checked the scenario from three different angles, and looked at the tree a bit closer. It seemed thick and durable, and it had branches near the top. Clearly, they wouldn’t support my weight if I tried to climb it, but maybe they could resist for only a second.

“…alright, then,” I muttered determinedly, pulling the hood over my head, and setting my plan in motion.

I circled the concrete fence. The ground on the other side was elevated, so it was easier to climb on top of it from this side. Fixing my backpack’s position, I took a deep breath and jumped towards the tree. Like a miracle, I landed on one of the branches. However, I couldn’t stay there, so in fraction of a second I jumped again, this time towards the balcony’s wooden fence. The branch, of course, snapped right off, but not before it could give me the foothold I needed to make the second jump.

I was hanging on the fence’s edge by my armpits. Fuck, that was close! Swinging myself from side to side to give me some momentum, I threw myself over the fence, landing on my stomach on the balcony. Man, thank god there didn’t happen to be any potted plants on this side. I carefully stood up, brushing the front of my shirt, and turned my gaze towards the balcony door. It was covered with curtains. Perfect, they don’t even know that I’m here!

Carefully sneaking to the side of the door, I peeked through the curtain’s thin gap. I saw Jun and Nakano, both having their backs turned, and next to them was Ui. They were sitting around the living room’s coffee table, clearly having no idea about my presence. Hold on… the table is full of food! And when I say full, I mean it. I haven’t eaten anything after school, since I knew Ui was going to prepare foods for the sleepover. Not wanting to torture my stomach for any longer, I took the hood off my head, opened the balcony’s door, and slid the curtain out of my way.

“Evening!” I shouted.

It was followed by the girls’ terrified screams. As they were busy screaming, I took my shoes off and closed the balcony’s door.

“Sorry that I’m late.”

“Idiot, idiot, idiot, idiot…!” Jun yelled, shaking me by the collar.

“But I al-rea-dy a-po-lo-gized! I stammered between the shakes, one syllable at a time.

Nakano, who was right next to Jun, kept frowning annoyedly. “It wasn’t fun at all! My heart almost stopped!”

Ui was sitting a bit further away, quietly watching. Seems that her punishment was to not interfere. Even though it wasn’t visible, I could tell she was clearly angry at me. I guess I deserved it…

Getting tired of shaking me, Jun finally let me go. Using her change, Nakano slipped closer and hit me on the forehead with the edge of his palm.

“Enough, alright!? My mom didn’t raise a punching bag!” I cried out, quickly retreating.

Jun and Nanako both glared at me angrily. However, Ui suddenly stood up, walking towards me. I slowly got on my feet, swallowing nervously. She stopped right in front of me, our bodies almost touching. She was frowning, staring me right in the eye. Damn, she’s never been this mad before. She raised her hand, and… rested her index finger on my nose.

“No!” she scolded me. “Apologize properly!” Her voice was soft, but still strict.

…I think my heart just skipped a beat.

She stepped out of my way. Taking a moment to process what just happened, I turned to face the girls, and bowed sheepishly.

“…I am sorry for my stunt. I didn’t consider the consequences, I only wanted to play a trick for my own amusement. It was stupid of me, and I promise I won’t do it again. Please, forgive me,” I muttered in a barely audible voice.

Raising my head just enough to see the girls, I saw them glancing at each other, looking puzzled.

“I… I guess that’s fine for an apology,” Nakano finally muttered after a bit of silence.

Jun nodded. “Never before have I seen Eiji-kun apologize so sincerely.”

Yeah, me neither. One of the reasons for it was Ui. I don’t know why, but she got me real scared with her sudden (but justified) change of character. The other reason was all the food on the table. I wanted to get this over with as soon as possible so I could eat. Still keeping my head lowered, I could hear Ui clap her hands together.

“Apology accepted. So, let’s resume eating.” Her tone had returned to the warm one I was so used to. “You too, Eiji-kun.”

I slowly moved myself to the table, sitting down at my usual spot. As I began stuffing my mouth, I completely forgot about my embarrassment.

Time passed, and all the food was gone, save for a donut box that Jun had brought. Everything tasted so good that I just had to keep eating. As Ui was busy washing the dishes, the rest of the gals sighed out of exhaustion.

“I ate a bit too much,” Jun muttered, laying down on the floor.

Nakano, who was sitting next to her, sighed: “I don’t think I can eat another bite.”

“Me three,” I said, lazily raising my hand.

I noticed Nakano glancing at the donut box, and then at Jun, raising her eyebrow. “Why did you eat them like that?”

“I wanted to taste every one of them,” Jun muttered, squirming on the floor.

Nakano saw my curious and puzzled expression, so she slapped the boxes side, turning it around for me to see. All of the donuts had a bite mark.

I grinned out of amusement. “Clever. You could’ve also cut a piece out of all of them and combined them into one, huge donut.”

Jun raised her head a bit to get a look at me. “You know, Eiji-kun, you have the smartest ideas at the wrong times.”

“…the hell does that mean?” I muttered under my breath.

She didn’t bother to answer me, but just rolled on her side. “You can eat the rest, Azusa.”

“There’s no way I can eat any more,” Nakano said.

“Sweet things go to a separate stomach,” Jun muttered smugly. “The chocolate one is pretty tasty.”

Thinking about it for a bit, Nakano finally reached into the box, crabbing a donut, and taking a bite out of it. She seemed to enjoy it. In fact, despite being full, I felt like having one, too.

I raised my hand. “Yo, pass me one.”

Nakano just gave me a nasty glance for an answer. Ah, that’s right, I’m not with my guy friends right now…

“…please?”

Still glaring at me for a while, she finally sighed, and pushed the box across the table towards me. Damn, there really was all sorts of donuts, from plain to jelly-filled. After pondering a bit, I decided to grab one with green frosting and chocolate stripes. And yeah, it sure was good. Raising my gaze a bit, I noticed Ui walking out of the kitchen, drying her hands on her apron.

“Hey, got any coffee? It would help with my digestion,” I asked her.

She cocked her head. “At this hour?”

“I’m immune to caffeine,” I explained.

Ui seemed to understand, and nodded with a slight smile. “Well, suit yourself. I actually bought some a while ago in case you would ask for it, but you’ve never complained about the tea, so I never brought it up.”

She then returned back to the kitchen. Wait, she bought coffee just for me? As I was processing the thought, I noticed both Jun and Nakano looking at me with smug smiles. Gals, whatever you are thinking, stop it. I decided to ignore them and just concentrate on my donut.

Just a few moments later Ui returned to the living room, setting a steaming cup of coffee in front of me.

“Ah, perfect. Thanks,” I said as I grabbed the cup.

Taking a careful sip, I… oh… oh my…

It’s fucking amazing!

…wait, shit, did I just let out some satisfied noises? Quickly raising my gaze from the coffee towards the girls, I was met with amused smiles. Huh, guess I did… Taking another sip, this time more casual, I turned to Ui.

“It’s good.”

She cocked her head with a smile. “Thank you. It was my first time making coffee, so I was a bit worried about how it turned out.”

…wait, what?

I didn’t even have any time to ask about it, since Ui’s phone vibrated, as if someone had sent her a message. Her phone’s lid had a screen, just like my phone, so she immediately saw the messenger.

“Ah, it’s from my sis,” she said, flipping the phone’s lid open.

Nakano slipped closer. “Show me.”

Ui showed the message to her, and they both giggled. It caught my interest, so I set the coffee cup down, and crawled over to them.

“What’s up?”

She showed me the message. It was a picture of Kotobuki throwing Tainaka with a pillow. It caused me to snort amusedly.

“Yup, seems typical for a field trip,” I chuckled.

Are you enjoying your sleepover?” Nakano read the text attached to the picture.

Don’t know about her, but I’m enjoying myself right now, even though we haven’t done anything but eaten. It was at that moment when I saw Jun moving from the corner of my eye. She rolled over to her stomach, and… well… pointed her ass up. Just a glimpse was enough for me, and I turned my gaze to the ground. Ui and Nakano turned to look at her, too, but for obvious reasons they didn’t react like I did, but were just puzzled.

“…what?” Jun muttered.

Out of nowhere, she began rolling towards us. Her head collided with Nakano’s, and Nakano’s head collided with mine. Following that, we three began holding our heads.

“…are you okay?” Ui asked, a bit amused.

After a few hours of having fun, we decided to turn in for the night, though I didn’t feel tired. The girls disappeared upstairs. After a moment, Ui came back, carrying a blanket and a pillow. She set them down on the couch, and turned to face me.

“You can stay up as long as you won’t make too much noise. Good night,”

“Yeah, night,” I answered.

Giving me one last smile, Ui walked upstairs, leaving me alone. I kept looking at the empty stairs for a while, and then around me. I stood up and shut all the lights save for the small one above the couch. Much better, I prefer dimly lit rooms. Grabbing the book and the soda bottle from my bag, I laid down on the couch, and resumed reading from where I left off, sipping the soda once in a while.

As I ran out of soda, I decided to take a break from reading. I wandered over to the kitchen, and began peering out of its window. Man, what a peaceful neighborhood. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with mine, but there’s just something about this one that makes me feel at ease. Maybe it’s just the Hirasawa residence or something. Turning my gaze up, I looked at the quarter moon, barely shining from behind all the clouds. Makes me wonder who else is looking at that same moon. Are they also having a sleepover with their friends? Did they happen to meet those friends by accident, like I did? About 7 billion changes, but somehow I felt like the only one. I, Sugimoto Eiji, am currently the most unique Japanese person. I kept gazing outside for a while longer, until I returned to the living room and resumed reading.

I was immersed in the book, when a door’s noise upstairs made me flinch a bit. It made me glance at my watch; it was almost 11 at night. Damn, back when I turned 15 and got the first volume of Warriors of Lotus as a present, I never thought I could get so immersed in books, but here we are. Setting the book on the coffee table, I began hearing footsteps, and soon saw Ui walking down the stairs, dressed in her pajamas and without her ponytail.

“Oh, you’re still awake?” she asked me after noticing me just sitting there.

“Yeah, but I’m thinking about hitting the hay,” I said, followed by a yawn.

Ui continued on to the kitchen. I could hear her drinking a glass of water. While she was doing that, I decided to undress myself, save for my t-shirt and jeans. I began setting up the pillow and the blanket, when Ui returned from the kitchen.

“Hey, I… I just wanted to thank you for coming,” she said to me quietly.

“Huh?” I muttered confusedly, turning to face her. “Well, yeah, don’t mention it.”

I, however, quickly remembered the reason we were having this sleepover in the first place: Yui was on a field trip, and Ui didn’t want to be alone. Huh, almost exactly the same situation as back then when I stepped inside this house the first time.

“…you miss Yui-san, huh?” I asked her.

After thinking a bit, she nodded.

I smirked a bit, sitting down on the couch. “I kinda know how you feel.”

Ui seemed curious, and walked over to the couch, taking a seat next to me. “You do?”

“Yeah. I sometimes miss my big brother, Daichi. As you know, he moved away last year,” I explained, keeping my voice quiet.

“…though, our relationship was never as close as your and Yui-san’s.”

Ui smiled a bit. “Well, it’s only natural to miss your family.”

“Yeah…” I muttered, gathered my thoughts for a bit, and confessed: “…actually, our relationship wasn’t always that great. Many years ago we were cold to each other.”

Ui just stayed quiet, listening to my tale.

“I’m not sure what it was about. Sure, at first we were fine, and played a lot together, but when I entered the same elementary school as him, I guess he thought that he was too old and too mature to even interact with a brat like me. When I ran up to him during recess, he just gave me the cold shoulder. If I somehow managed to “embarrass” him, he would… well, beat me up after school.”

I glanced at Ui. She seemed a bit shocked, but still kept quiet. I took it as a sign to continue.

“…so, few years later, when I encountered my first bullies, I ran up to him, asking him for help. And he just told me to handle it myself. So that’s what I did, I handled it myself, and it just got me in trouble. It wasn’t until he entered high school that he began interacting more with me. It took me a while to forgive him.”

I don’t know why I was pouring myself out. I guess being with Ui gave me the courage to do so.

I turned to face her. “Should I have kept on hating him?”

She actually seemed to think about it for a while, until she shook her head. “I don’t think you should ever hate someone close to you, even if they make mistakes, big or small. In the end, he stopped being cold towards you, right?”

“Yeah, he did…” I muttered, and decided to ask: “What about you? Have you and Yui-san ever fought?”

Ui giggled quietly into her palm. “Oh, yes, a few times, and they were always about something trivial, like her eating the last strawberry, or me finishing up her jigsaw puzzle.”

“It’s always about the trivial stuff,” I chuckled.

We kept talking about our family matters for quite some time. As time went on, Ui became more and more sleepy, but for some reason she still wanted to stay there and talk with me. When she suddenly rested her head on my shoulder, almost falling asleep, I decided that this was enough for today. I shook her awake, telling her to go upstairs to sleep. We said our goodnights to each other (again), and I slipped under the blanket, slowly drifting off.

…wha… Huh? God damn it, did I fall asleep with my clothes on again? My mom’s going to yell at me… A bit dazed, I barely managed to take my shirt and jeans off, until I fell back to sleep.

I woke up to noises coming from upstairs. Seems that the girls are awake. I wonder what time it is… I turned to look at the balcony door, and noticed that it was a bit dark outside. I could hear it raining outside, too. Maybe I should go and brush my teeth… or maybe not. I think I’ll just stay under the blanket until all of the girls come downstairs, I wouldn’t want to catch one of them in the middle of changing their clothes or something.

After laying on the couch for a while, I finally began hearing footsteps coming from the stairs, and saw Ui walking downstairs, dressed up casually and her hair tied into ponytail.

“Morning. Is it safe to use the bathroom?” I asked her, rubbing the sleep out of my eye.

She turned to look at me with a smile. “Good morning. Yes, it’s currently vaca—"

Her sentence, however, quickly died down, as she was staring somewhere in my direction. As she was doing that, a blush appeared on her face. Confused a bit, I decided to sit up. That’s when she flinched.

“E-Eiji-kun, don’t get up!” she panicked.

“Huh?” I muttered, confused as hell.

Ui turned her blushing face away from me. “Y-you’re… You’re not wearing any…”

As she was having difficulties finishing her sentence, I took a glimpse on the floor next to the couch. That’s just my t-shirt and my jeans, what’s the big deal?

…oh.

…Oh!

“What’s all this ruckus?” I could hear Jun asking.

As I was busy getting hastily dressed up, I could see two pair of feet walking the stairs down. Ui, however, stopped them.

“A-ah, wait for a moment! Don’t go downstairs just yet!”

Jun didn’t seem to care about that. She leaned forward, only to see me quickly put my jeans on.

“Ah, Eiji-kun’s just being a pervert again,” she muttered to herself.

She casually walked rest of the stairs down, going past panicking Ui, and taking a seat on the couch, just as I managed to put my shirt on. Well, she’s been to the pool with me, so I guess me being half-naked wasn’t anything new to her, but I still couldn’t help but to be surprised about her audacity.

“Maybe you should think about finally getting yourself some pajamas?” she quipped to me with a smirk.

“Shut your mouth, you,” I muttered, lowering my head as to hide my blush as I searched for my toothbrush from my backpack.

After getting my teeth brushed, I lazily walked back to the living room, still yawning a bit. Jun was sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch, and reading a manga. Nakano was sitting on the couch, hugging the pillow on her lap and glancing at the rain outside, looking a bit gloomy. Ui was in the kitchen, preparing some tea.

“Scoot over,” I said to Jun, who was sitting right at my usual spot.

She moved herself a bit to the right, and I sat down next to her, joining Nakano in watching the rain. Ui got the tea done, and carried the tray over to the coffee table.

“It’s pouring outside…” Nakano muttered, stating the obvious.

“Yeah. Looks like we can’t go to the zoo, after all,” Ui said, setting down the tea cups in front of us.

I might be wrong, but I think they had planned on going to the zoo. There’s also a great change that Nakano was the most eager to go.

Speaking of Nakano, she lied down on the couch with a sigh, muttering: “I wanted to go…”

Oh. Guess I was right after all.

She raised her gaze towards Jun. “Jun, is there something you want to do?”

“Mm,” Jun made a noise.

“Or somewhere to go?”

“Mm.”

“A game or something would be fine, too.”

“Mm.”

The scenario made me grin out of amusement.

“…what about you, Eiji-san?” Nakano asked me.

“Mm.”

Nakano frowned. “Answer seriously.”

“Nothing comes to my mind…” I muttered, reaching for the tea cup in front of me, until I noticed something. “…hold on, did you just call me by the first name?”

She kept looking at me for a while, until she turned her head the other way, slightly embarrassed. “Ui told me to give it a try…”

I glanced at Ui, who was just smiling for an answer. After thinking about it for a bit, I couldn’t help but smile, too.

“Alright, then… Azusa-san.”

She frowned a bit, but after realizing that I didn’t say it out of malice, she turned her head back the other way, quietly mumbling something out of embarrassment.

I just kept smiling, and sipped my tea. Jun closed the manga she was reading, and called out for Ui.

“Ui, do you have the sixth volume of this?”

“Uh, I’m not sure…” Ui muttered.

Naka… Azusa frowned to Jun. “You’re going to lose your friends if you act like that.”

Ui stood up, and began heading upstairs. Jun followed right after her, and so did Azusa… Ah, what the hell, might as well join them. Ui led us to Yui’s room’s door, opening it.

“I think I saw it in my sis’ bookshelf,” she muttered, stepping inside.

We followed her into the dark room. Ui began browsing Yui’s shelf, and Azusa scoped out some photos pinned on the wall above the desk. Jun spotted something, and ran deeper into the room. She crouched down in front of Yui’s guitar.

“This must be Giita. It’s cool!”

I was watching Jun’s doings for a while, until I could hear Ui say: “Ah, there it is.”

She carried the manga over to Jun. “Here’s the seventh volume.”

“I wanted the sixth,” Jun said.

“But I only saw this one,” Ui muttered.

Azusa turned around to face the girls. “Don’t let that bother you.”

As I saw Jun hesitatingly reaching for the manga, I decided to step in. “No, don’t. There’s no point in reading if you’re gonna skip whole volumes.”

“Ah, you’re right,” she said, quickly retracting her hand. “Let’s go to a bookstore!”

The hell? Is the manga that good? Maybe I should take a look at it.

“But it’s still pouring outside,” Azusa noted.

Jun seemed extremely frustrated. With a big sigh, she crashed down on Yui’s bed.

“Now I’m bored,” she cried out.

Azusa was unamused. “That’s why I suggested we’d do something.”

I was just leaning against the wall, watching the whole thing play out. Sure, I had a couple of activities in mind, but they’d involve alcohol, and I was sure that these gals weren’t very fond of that stuff. Now that I think about it, I’m kinda boring for a teenager. Either I sit at home playing videogames, or then I’m outside with my friends, drinking beer and picking fights with students from other schools.

A message tone sounded, and Azusa dug out her phone. “Ah, it’s from Yui-senpai.”

Ui ran over to her to check the message. Out of curiosity, I decided to do the same, peeking over Azusa’s head. It was a photo of Yui and her friends, standing in Kyoto’s monkey park.

What are you guys up to?” she read the message attached to the photo.

She seemed to think about something for a bit, until she determinably suggested: “You know, let’s go somewhere!”

A faint sound of snoring made us turn our gazes towards Yui’s bed. Jun was sound asleep on top of it.

“She falls asleep too easily!” Azusa yelled out.

Man, why drink alcohol, when you can hang out with gals that can pass out even without it?

“…so you want to do this, because…?” I asked Jun, couple of batting cages away.

For some reason, she really wanted to play baseball, which is why we were currently standing in a local amusement hall’s batting cages. I didn’t really feel like grabbing the bat, so I was just standing in the same cage as Ui.

“I was reading a baseball manga, so I got the urge,” Jun answered.

The pitching machine in front of her shot out a ball towards her, and she just jumped out of its way.

“There’s no way I can hit that,” she muttered.

Of course there’s no way, you’re not even trying, gal! I prevented myself from yelling the former out loud, and tried my best to calm down. Azusa, at least, tried to hit the ball, but to no avail. I looked back at Jun, only to find her missing.

“I’m going to try out that crane game over there,” she said to Azusa through the plexiglass behind the batting cage, and ran off somewhere.

And I thought Ichiro had the worst attention span I’ve ever seen…

“How are doing, Ui?” Azusa asked.

“It’s difficult,” she muttered for an answer.

The machine pitched the ball. Ui swung the bat too late. Not that it would’ve mattered, because she hit a bit too high. Ugh, I promised myself I wouldn’t get frustrated, but when it’s about baseball, I can’t help it. I don’t care much for PE classes, but I like baseball. Letting out a deep sigh, I decided to step in.

“Mind if I help you a bit?” I asked Ui.

“Oh, uh, not at all,” she said, a bit confused, and stepping out of the pitching machine’s line of fire.

“Alright, show me your batting pose,” I told her, and she got into her pose.

I circled her, scoping her out. She couldn’t help but glance at me from the corner of her eye, clearly confused.

“Okay, you’ve got the right idea, but you got to move your left knee a bit forward, and turn your right knee a bit to the right,” I instructed her.

“Oh,” she muttered, readjusting her legs a bit. “…like this?”

I nodded. “Just like that. When the ball comes and you swing the bat, you’ll need to quickly slide your left foot forward as to give you support for a wider swing.”

Ui nodded confidently. “Okay, I’ll give it a try—”

“Hold on just a minute,” I cut her off. “Your grip on the bat is fine, but the position of the bat itself needs some fixing. Put it a bit more sideways above your shoulder, make it point to the back left.”

Once again, Ui did her best to follow my instructions. “Like this?”

“Yeah, something like that. Hold on,” I said, walking closer to her.

I lifter her bat a bit, and lowered her shoulder.

“…there, now you won’t hit your arm off,” I quipped, getting a horrified expression for an answer.

I decided to go back to the cage’s corner. “That’s pretty much it. When the ball is pitched, keep your eyes on it, don’t look away. Swing the bat half-a-second before you intend to hit it. And when you swing, curve the bat downwards a bit, and upwards right after.”

“Okay, got it,” Ui nodded confidently, stepping back to the line of fire.

“…Eiji-san?” I could hear Azusa muttering to me. “Are you secretly a pro player or something?”

Still keeping my eyes on Ui, I answered: “No, I’m just a delinquent with limited interest and too much time in his hands.”

The machine pitched the ball. Just as I instructed, Ui kept her eyes on it, not even blinking. Half-a-second before the ball would hit, she swung the bat, dipping it lower for a bit, and then bringing it upwards.

Clack!

…and there the ball goes, soaring through the hall in an amazing curve. As a salt to everybody else’s wounds, it hit a sign, with the text Home run on it.

“…holy hell…” I quietly muttered under my breath, completely awestruck.

Ui was just as surprised. “I did it…”

She began excitedly hopping in her place. “I did it, Eiji-kun! I got a hit!”

“I know, I was there,” I quipped, smiling at her excitement.

Ui then turned to look at Azusa. “I did it, Azusa-chan… where did she go?”

Indeed, Azusa’s cage was empty. We decided to step out of the cage, and found both Jun and Azusa sitting on a bench, drinking refreshments.

“Ui’s such a fast learner,” Jun muttered.

“Just like Yui-senpai,” Azusa added.

Ui was rather confused, while I turned my face away to hide my grin.

Ui and I stopped by the register to pick up her home run prize. It was a giant doll of a turtle.

“Man, how are you planning on carrying that in the rain?” I asked her.

“Well, I think I can come up with something,” she said, and hugged the turtle. “It’s soft…”

She, however, quickly realized something. “Oh, I wish there was a prize for you, too, since you coached me so well.”

Gal, I just gave you a few words of advice, and you executed them perfectly…

“Well, you can make me tea to make up for it,” I quipped.

Ui shook her head. “It has to be something special.”

“Huh…” I muttered, thinking about it for a bit. “Okay, then. I’ll have parmesan chicken with jasmine rice, and Finnish blueberry pie for dessert.”

“Just as you wish. Would next Tuesday be fine with you?” she asked, cocking her head with a smile.

Wait, she’s actually going to do that? I just named things that I’ve seen on cooking shows. Better not to take it back, because knowing Ui, those things will most likely be tasty. When we got to the rest of the gals, they were just as confused about the turtle as I was.

“Where are you going to put that? It’s ten times bigger than Ton-chan…” Azusa said, her sentence drifting off, almost as if she realized something.

“What’s wrong?” Jun asked her.

“…I completely forgot about Ton-chan.”

A minute later I found myself running with the girls in the rain. I didn’t have an umbrella with me, so I had to settle for my hood, which did the trick.

“Care to tell me who this Ton-chan is?” I asked Azusa as we kept on running.

“You’ll see when we get there,” she answered.

After running for a moment, we arrived at the Sakuragaoka High School. So this is where that Ton was? The school, of course, was closed for the weekend, but the front door’s weren’t locked, so we stepped inside. We stopped by the security guard’s booth, where Azusa explained the situation to him, and he handed us a key. Despite giving me a suspicious glance, he had no objections on me being here, to my surprise. We run up the stairs to the third floor, and used the key to get into a certain room. Yui’s club’s clubroom, that is.

Azusa ran to the aquarium in the corner of the room, sighed out of relief, and began sprinkling some sort of flakes into the aquarium. I walked over to it, checking the aquatic animal inside.

“Well now, fancy seeing you here,” I muttered to myself in surprise.

It was that same, little pig-nosed turtle that Azusa was checking out some time ago in the hardware store. Looks like it’s been hungry.

“Yui-senpai and the other bought him for me,” Azusa explained, and soon sighed. “And I forgot about feeding him…”

Ui leaned in for a closer look. “So this is Ton-chan. He sure is cute.”

“Cute?” Azusa asked.

Ui nodded. “Yes. My sis says that it’s as cute as Azunyan.”

“As cute as me…?” Azusa muttered, and had stared down at Ton, who in return stared back at her.

“Ah!” Jun suddenly yelled out. “The sixth volume was here!”

She was digging around the shelf under the aquarium.

“Well, what a good thing we ventured outside. The turtle was saved, and you get to continue on reading,” I quipped with a snort.

“Shut your mouth, you,” she muttered to me as she moved to the table to read her manga.

Azusa was frowning a bit due to my blurt, and turned to face the aquarium. “Sure, I’m happy for Ton-chan, but… how long is it going to rain?”

She directed her gaze out of the window, where the rain kept pouring down.

“…what a shitty day,” I muttered under my breath.

No one cared to comment on my language, meaning it was exactly what they were thinking, too.

We kept staring at the rain for a while, until we heard Jun suggesting: “Then, do you guys want to jam?”

We turned around to look at her, as she explained: “It’s raining, so, maybe we can play as loud as we want.”

As loud as we want…? Man, that would sure suit me.

I could see a flash of excitement in Azusa’s eyes. “That’s a great idea!”

So, we began planning. Ui, at first, wasn’t sure if she could play anything, but then settled on playing the organ. We stopped by the Jazz club’s room to get ourselves a bass and two guitars. They had only one spare electric guitar, so I had to settle for acoustic one. Well, I didn’t mind it, it made me felt kinda nostalgic.

Soon we were sitting in a circle, and were ready to play. Ui was sitting in front of the organ, Azusa had some generic Fender, Jun had her white bass, and I had the acoustic guitar. Jun count to four, and we began playing. The song was, well, a nursery rhyme. Regardless, when I was strumming along the song with the others, I couldn’t care less what the song was. It felt good to play with other people. Maybe I should take Yui up on her offer and play with her club sometime.

The song was soon over, and everybody seemed pleased.

“We did it,” Ui said excitedly.

Jun nodded. “That was a really cool version.”

I tried to come up with something to say. However, my thought process was cut short when the room’s gray and dim lighting soon turned into orange and bright. I turned to look at the window.

“…hey, check it out,” I muttered.

We got up and walked to the window. The rain had stopped, the clouds were slowly clearing, the setting sun was shining. The light reached the club room, coloring everything in orange. It was a pretty sight.

Suddenly, a message tone sounded, and Ui dug out her phone. “It’s from sis!”

The girls gathered around to check the message, while I stayed at the window, admiring the scenery.

Ugh, I miss Giita,” Azusa read the message out loud, and the girls giggled.

“Oh!” Ui yelled out. “Maybe we should take a picture for her?”

Azusa nodded. “Sure!”

Ui nodded, and called out for me. “Eiji-kun.”

I turned my gaze from the window. “Huh? Oh, sure, I can take the picture.”

She shook her head. “No, you should be in it with us.”

What, really? Well, the girls got together side by side, while I was instructed to go behind Azusa, since I was the tallest. After adjusting our positions a bit, Ui held her phone a bit further away and took the picture.

It started to get dark when we all decided to go home. We accompanied Jun to the bus stop, where she drove off.

“It’s quite a walk to your home from here, are you sure you’re okay walking?” Ui asked me.

“Beats the public transport,” I said.

Ui wasn’t sure what I was talking about. It wasn’t a joke or anything, I just prefer walking over busses and trains.

I adjusted my backpack a bit, and turned to face the girls. “Well, thanks for having me.”

“Of course,” Ui said with a smile, and raised the turtle doll in her hands. “And thank you for helping me win this.”

“Tell Tamiko-chan to get well soon,” Azusa said.

I nodded, turning around, and waving my hand. “Sure. See you later.”

I began heading home through the darkened evening. As I walked, making a rhythm by tapping my pockets, I realized something, and pulled out my wallet. The 5000 yen note was still there, I didn’t need to spend a cent of money. Maybe I should keep it… or maybe I should buy something nice for Tamiko. She seemed upset about not being able to attend the sleepover. Well, hopefully she’ll be fine by Tuesday. I’ll invite her to eat grade A chicken parmesan at Ui’s house.

Chapter Text

“Morning,” I greeted my friends as I entered the club room.

It was still early, and it would be a while until the classes would start. It’s rare for us three to be awake so early at the same time. Tadaaki and Ichiro were both laying on the couches. The club room was filled with the pleasant aroma of coffee.

“It’s pouring like hell, huh?” Tadaaki stated.

I noticed that he had hung his uniform’s coat to dry. I decided to do the same, after which I headed to the kitchen area to grab myself a cup of coffee. As I carried the cup over to the couches, I noticed Ichiro reading some magazine.

“What’s that? The newest Playboy?”

He snickered. “Not this time. I’m just checking out some jobs, since I won’t be going to college after this.”

“I see,” I muttered, sipping my coffee. “Found anything?”

“Nah, just the same old shit. No way I’m becoming some salaryman, but I’m not sure if manual labor interest me either.”

Man, you won’t become shit if you’re so picky about your options…

As I was thinking about jobs and all that, I remembered something. “Oh, by the way, speaking about jobs, I applied for a summer job.”

Ichiro lowered his magazine. “Why? You’re just gonna waste your summer.”

“Man, shut up. I’m just doing it because my computer needs better components,” I said, clicking my tongue.

Tadaaki shrugged. “Alright. So, what’s the job?”

I didn’t answer right away, which only peaked the guys’ interest. I hesitated a few seconds.

“…domestic worker.”

As I had guessed, the guys chuckled.

“What, you’re gonna become a maid?” Ichiro snickered with his ugly grin.

I felt like throwing him with my coffee cup, but decided to just frown. “Fuck off. It just seemed easy enough. Cleaning, doing laundry, taking out the trash… My mom forces me to do all those, so I might as well get paid for it.”

Tadaaki chuckled quietly for a while, until he suddenly stopped, as if realizing something. “…hold on, why did you apply so early? It’s not like this town will run out of summer jobs.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I explained. “This is not a typical summer job. It pays well, and I mean really well. Or at least that’s what it said in the ad. There was also a limited time for applying.”

“The hell?” Ichiro muttered, puzzled. “Sounds too good to be true. Who is the employer, anyway?”

Tadaaki, too, seemed a bit interested.

I sipped my coffee.

“I forgot.”

The guys sighed in chorus, which made me smirk. But seriously, I forgot the employer’s name. Oh well, not like it would matter anyway. I mean, unless I’m accepted, then I’ll have to memorize it really well. The bell soon rang, and we slowly headed to the class.

Couple of weeks went by. The classes ended, and I began packing my bag. The weather outside was nice, so I felt like going for a walk instead of going to the club room. Half-an-hour walk, that is. So, I dug out my phone, sending Ui a message, asking if we should have some tea. I soon received an affirmative answer.

I walked over to Tadaaki. “Yo, I’ve got stuff to do. See you tomorrow.”

He, of course, understood me right away, and just nodded with a smile. Ichiro, on the other hand, seemed suspicious, but didn’t say anything. I walked out of the class and towards the lobby, dodging students like obstacles. Finally getting to the shoe lockers, I changed my shoes, and headed outside.

As I was walking through the school’s yard, I walked by that same old fountain in the middle of it. However, I spotted Hironaka sitting on its edge. Well, we haven’t really spoken to each other after the Winter Festival, so I didn’t pay her much mind, and just walked past her.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san?”

I halted, and glanced at her over my shoulder. “Oh, hi.” I then resumed on walking.

“H-hold on!”

I, once again, halted, this time turning around completely. “Huh, what’s up? Got another gig for me?”

“Eh? Oh, uh, no,” she muttered, shaking her head. “I’m just wondering why you’re leaving so early.”

I raised my eyebrow, and glanced at my watch. “The school’s over, why else?”

My cheekiness made her a bit annoyed. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, you usually go straight to your club room.”

“How can you tell that?” I asked, puzzled a bit.

“Well, sometimes I have to go fetch something from the basement for the Athletics Club or the student council. And every time I do that, there’s always a ruckus coming from your club room,” she explained.

I took a moment to process her words, and snorted. “I see. Well, then, what’s your excuse for being here, and not at the track or some student council meeting or something?”

“I’m just waiting for a friend, we’re supposed to go home and study together for the upcoming exams. That’s why I’m skipping the club meeting today,” she explained, frowning a bit.

Ah, shit, exams. Well, I guess I remember some things from the classes, so no need to worry about it, or at least I hope so. Hironaka still seemed to wait for my answer.

“Well, I’m going to go and meet my many girlfriends from Sakuragaoka High School,” I quipped with a smirk.

Hironaka frowned, muttering: “You’re still angry about that?”

“A bit,” I said with a shrug.

She seemed to think about something for a bit. “You seem to spend a lot of time with them. Is there a reason for why you’re not dating one of them?”

I was about to retort with something, but quickly calmed down with a sigh. Her tone wasn’t malicious, she actually seemed curious about it. It took me some seconds to come up with an answer and gather up my courage.

“Honestly speaking? The thought has crossed my mind a few times,” I muttered, slipping my hands into my pockets. “But realistically speaking? We’re just friends.”

I turned to face Hironaka, and decided to elaborate a bit: “I mean, yeah, I’d be fine dating any of them. But I’m not so sure if they’d feel the same. I guess it’s the reason for why we’re still just friends. I bet one of them would’ve said or done something already if they wanted to date.”

Hironaka seemed to think about my words for a bit, until she chuckled quietly. “Sugimoto-san, you’re an idiot. A girl’s heart is much more complex than that, you watch way too many movies. For all you know, one of them might’ve been showing the signs all this time, and you’ve just brushed them off as nothing special.”

The hell is she talking about? I mean, sure, she’s a girl, too, but can I take her word for it? It’s not like all the girls think alike. But… Signs, huh…? I wonder if there has ever been any, or have I just missed them, just like she said?

As I was thinking about it, I could see another student approaching us from the corner of my eye. She was a girl, most likely Hironaka’s friend.

“My, my, Kaiya-chan. Are you going to introduce me to your boyfrie—"

However, her cheery and sarcastic tone quickly died down as she got a better look at me, and recognized me.

“…wait, what’s this loser doing here? Is he bullying you?”

Me, bullying? Never. There’s no idea in bullying. Sure, I may sometimes say, or do, bad things to someone, but it’s only bullying if I do it constantly to one person.

Smirking a bit, I slowly turned around. “Nah, we’re just discussing love life.”

“Kaiya-chan’s love life is none of your concern!” the girl snapped.

“I meant mine,” I corrected her as I began walking away.

I could hear her confused muttering, which made me grin. As I got off the school yard and began heading towards the Hirasawa residence, I couldn’t help but to think about Hironaka’s words. Seriously, has there ever been any signs? I mean, Ui always welcomes me into her house with a smile, but that’s what she always does to everyone. Ugh, shit, better to just forget about the whole thing. I don’t want our interactions to feel awkward.

One refreshing half-a-hour walk later I arrived at Ui’s house. I walked over to the door and rang the doorbell, all the while humming the lyrics of a punk rock song stuck in my head. It didn’t take long for Ui to answer the door. She was still wearing her school uniform. I stepped inside, and followed her up to the living room. The coffee table held two cups of tea, and some snacks. Just the usual, but I’ll never get tired of it. The balcony door was open, letting in some fresh air. I shook my uniform’s coat off as I walked over to the coffee table and took a seat at my usual spot, while Ui sat across from me. Without further ado, we began drinking our teas.

I was in the middle of munching on a sandwich while gazing out of the balcony, when I heard Ui asking: “By the way, what country would you like to visit?”

She clearly tried to fill the silence by sparking a conversation. I didn’t have any objections to that.

Swallowing the contents in my mouth, I thought about it for a bit: “Well… Ireland, I guess.”

Ui cocked her head, puzzled. “Huh, how so? You always seemed like an America-type to me.”

Yeah, I guess I consume a lot of American media, but I don’t care for the place itself. However, I didn’t care to ruin the conversation with politics, so I decided to just ignore the latter part of her sentence.

“I guess it’s the atmosphere, if that makes sense. The nature, history, culture… you know,” I muttered, rubbing my neck. “Many great bands are also from there.”

Ui nodded for an answer, and sipped her tea.

“What about you?” I asked her.

“M-me? Uh, well…” she muttered, placing her index finger on her lower lip.

“…maybe United Kingdom. I’m a bit fascinated by the elegant culture, and they also drink a lot of tea.”

Elegant culture, huh…? I tried imagining Ui in a royal family, sipping tea in a fancy dress. It kinda fits… until she starts cleaning the dishes, which is not very royal-like. The thought made me snicker a bit, which confused Ui.

We finished our teas, after which Ui turned around to face the TV, and pulled out a game controller, a small smile on her face. I didn’t even have to ask what was on her mind.

“What the hell, where did you get a rocket launcher!?” I cried out as I tried my best to dodge Ui’s attacks.

Ui was just sitting calmly, her eyes on the TV screen, and that smile on her face. Almost as if this was natural to her. It got me a bit scared, to be honest.

I only could give her a couple of bursts from my gun before I had to retreat once again, as she had finished reloading her rocket launcher. Both of us had nine scores, meaning both of us were one victory away from winning the whole match. Damn it, I’ve got to think… She has only half of her health bar left, and no more healing items. But, on the other hand, I have barely any health left. Wait… I remember reading about this game on the internet once. They said that it has some surprisingly realistic elements to it. For example, the rockets can explode mid-air if shot.

Taking a deep breath, I peeked out of the cover, aiming my gun at Ui. Or actually her rocket launcher, as a matter of fact. She was done reloading her rocket launcher, and was aiming it at me. From the corner of my eye, I watched Ui pulling the trigger on her controller. My reflexes kicked in, and I did the same. My bullets collided with her rocket as soon as it left the launcher, blowing Ui’s character into pieces. The game was over. I won.

Dropping the controller on the floor, I punched the air in front of me enthusiastically. “Hell yeah! Woo! Suck on that, you—”

During my victory scream, I happened to turn to face Ui. My voice quickly died down as I was met with her confused and surprised expression. My enthusiasm was replaced by embarrassment. Shit, I let myself get carried away.

“…y-you, you…” I stuttered in a low voice.

A few awkward seconds passed as we kept staring at each other, until Ui began giggling into her palm. It soon turned into a cheerful laugh. I couldn’t help but to just sit there dumbstruck, a small blush of embarrassment on my face.

As Ui was wiping the tears out of her eyes, we could hear the front door opening, and a familiar voice announcing: “I’m home!”

“Welcome back, sis!” Ui answered, still a bit amused.

She, however, quickly realized something. She grabbed my left wrist, and moved the sleeve out of the way to get a look at my watch.

“Oh, I better start making dinner,” she muttered to herself, letting go of my hand and standing up.

“You can stay to eat if you want, Eiji-kun.”

“Yeah, sure. Thanks,” I answered as I began clearing the game console away.

Yui soon appeared to the living room, wearing her school uniform, and carrying her guitar bag. As usual, it took a while for her to notice my presence.

“Oh, hey, Eiji-kun!” she greeted me, heading upstairs, most likely to her room.

I quickly got the job done. I stood up, looking around a bit. Ui was in the middle of preparing the dinner. It’ll sure take a while, so I have to kill time somehow. I glanced at my schoolbag, which was resting against the couch. Didn’t Hironaka say something about exams? Maybe I should study a bit… Heh, imagine if I actually did something like that. Instead, I walked over to the small bookshelf behind the dining table, crouching down in front of it. Man, this household’s got a great taste for books, that’s for sure. I’ve read a few of them, and they’ve always been good. I selected a random book, examined it a bit, and walked over to the couch.

I’m not sure how long I was reading that book. I averted my eyes from it when began hearing Ui setting up the coffee table. Damn, I thought World War II was only interesting in games, but guess it makes a fine theme for a book, too.

“Sis, dinner’s ready!” Ui shouted upwards.

“Coming!” Yui shouted back.

Setting a bookmark, I set the book down on the couch, and moved myself to the coffee table. During that, I could hear Yui skipping down the stairs. She had changed into some casual clothes. With a satisfied (and hungry) expression, she took a seat at the coffee table. Only thing that was missing was the food itself, which Ui was currently carrying over from the kitchen. Curry and rice; simple but delicious. With Ui giving us the permission, we dug in. Even though I was eating my serving with a good appetite, Yui seemed to wolf down her food way faster.

It wasn’t long until our plates were empty. Thanking Ui for the food, I laid down, leaning against the couch. Ui just smiled, clearing the table, and heading to the kitchen to wash the dishes. Resting my hands on my stomach, I glanced out of the balcony door. Blue, almost cloudless sky. Some cicadas singing here and there, occasionally disturbed by the sound of a car driving by. It sure is peaceful.

“Wow, it’s so big…” I could hear Yui muttering to herself.

Confused, I turned to look at her, and found her holding my uniform’s coat.

“It’s almost like a robe or something.”

“That’s because I’m way taller than you, gal…” I muttered, unamused.

Not diverting her gaze from the coat, she spread one of the sleeves. “…and wider, too.”

I almost chocked on my own spit. “T-the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Yui lowered the coat a bit, peeking at me over it. “You have wide shoulders.”

“Oh?” I murmured, glancing at the said things from the corner of my eye. “…I guess you can call them wide.”

Taking a moment to examine the coat a bit more, Yui decided to try it on. Yup, it was clearly too big for her. The ends of the sleeves were hanging limp, and the hem almost reached her knees. Yui, however, wasn’t bothered by it. Suddenly, she stood up, frowned as to make herself look serious, and… made some kind of pose.

What the heck you think you’re doin’ in my turf?” she muttered in a low voice, almost as if reading a script.

I wasn’t sure how to react to that. “…what’s that supposed to be?”

“Eh?” Yui muttered, having returned to the goofy girl I know. “Isn’t that how hooligans act?”

Oh, so she’s trying to imitate a delinquent. Does my uniform’s coat give that impression to her?

I chuckled a bit. “Only the ones that watch way too many movies.”

“Oh? Then how is a hooligan supposed to act?” she asked me.

She sat down, facing me. Almost as if she was expecting me to give her a full-on lesson about delinquency.

Still laying down, I raised my eyebrow. “Why do you want to know?”

“Just curious,” she answered, fiddling with the coat’s sleeves.

I turned my gaze to the ceiling, thinking. Yeah, there’s no way I’m teaching that gal about being a delinquent… but, what if I scared that thought out of her head, instead? I turned my eyes back to Yui. She still seemed to wait for a lesson. Well, better not leave her hanging. With a sigh, I sat up, turning to face her.

I raised my index finger. “Well, first off, there’s a weekly quota you have to meet with a few things.”

“Q-quota?” she muttered to herself, confused.

“Yup. You have to drink six beers, smoke two packs of cigarettes, and get into at least one fistfight. All that, if you want to consider yourself a hooligan,” I explained while counting my fingers, trying my best not to grin.

Yui seemed shocked, and a bit terrified, too. “B-beers? C-cigarettes?”

I crossed my arms and nodded. “That’s right. And if you’re short on money, there’s always some in your parents’ wallets. Or, you know, you can just steal those things from the stores.”

Yui was sitting stiff, almost shaking. Maybe I was taking this too far, but I just wanted to be sure.

“E-E-Eiji-kun?”

I turned to face the voice, and found Ui standing right next to us, terrified. Her voice was shaking.

“D-D-Don’t tell me you do things like that.”

“Wha…?” I muttered, confused, until I realized what was going on with a flinch. “N-no, of course not! I was just joking! I-I just wanted to make sure that Yui-san would never even think about becoming a delinquent!”

“Huh? I was only curious about it since you once told me that you’re a hooligan yourself,” Yui explained.

“What!?” I cried out. “So you weren’t interested in becoming one yourself?”

Yui nodded slowly, still a bit scared looking. Fuck, better clear this mess up quickly!

After explaining my intentions and assuring the girls that I’m not a total piece-of-shit human being, they finally started to calm down. With a relieved and tired sigh, I laid back down on the floor, my hands behind my neck.

“Be more specific in the future…” I muttered to Yui.

She nodded, and seemed to think about something. “Speaking of future… Do you have any plans for what you’re going to do after high school?”

Now why would she ask me something so serious? Unless…

“Ah, did you guys also receive those career plan handouts?” I asked with an amused snort.

She nodded. “Uh, yes. You too?”

“Yup, earlier today. Honestly speaking, I have no plans for the future, so I just wrote NEET on it and passed it forward,” I explained, and chuckled a bit. “Man, my teacher was angry at me.”

Yui was quiet for a while, until she sighed. “I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for my future.”

Ui, who was sitting next to her sister, flinched a bit, and turned to face me. “What, you don’t have plans for the future?”

I shook my head. “Nope, not even the slightest idea.”

Ui dragged herself a bit closer, looking a bit worried. “No college, no employment? Nothing that interests you?”

I glanced at her, and turned my gaze back to the ceiling. “No, not really. But it’s not like this town will run out of jobs. I bet I can find something to keep me fed. College, however, is out of question. I don’t really care for studying. Actually, I’m not sure if I can graduate at all. My grades are far from the best.”

Ui frowned a bit. “You really should take these things more seriously, especially studying.”

I kept staring at the ceiling for a moment, until I sat up, and stretched my back. “Yeah, well, I guess I remember enough stuff from the classes to pass the exams. But, actually, English is—”

“It’s hard, I know,” Yui finished my sentence, cutting me off. “I’m not very good at it, either, but I’m sure you’ll learn it someday, too.”

Her tone was boastful. I bet she thought she was better at English than me.

“…actually, I was about to say that English is one of my strongest subjects,” I corrected her.

She was dumbstruck. “…eh?”

As I said before, English is one of my strongest subjects,” I spoke in English to make myself clear.

Yui was shocked, and upset, to say the least. “…w-wha…? H-how…?”

I just shrugged. “Thanks to the internet, I guess. I’ve always been interested in western video games, so I took some extra English lessons in junior high. And when I went to high school, I was moved to the advanced English class. Not to sound cocky or anything, but I bet I could stroll around any English speaking country without having to worry about the language barrier.”

Yui, more speechless than ever, took some seconds to process my words, until she crashed down on the floor. “There’s no hope for me!”

“Uh, come on, now. Things aren’t that bad,” I tried to comfort her.

“There’s no future for me!” Yui continued on her sorrowful whining.

I tried to come up with something to say, but to no affair. After panicking for a while, I finally turned to Ui.

“Ui-san, help me out here!”

She nodded with a smile, got on her feet, and headed to the kitchen. She quickly returned, carrying a plate, which held a delicious looking cake. She set it down on the coffee table.

“Sis, I stopped by the pastry shop on my way home. This is for you,” she called out for Yui, who was squirming on the floor.

In a blink of an eye, Yui had calmed down, and was munching on the cake with a satisfied expression on her face. Taking some seconds to realize what had just happened, I couldn’t help but smile. That gal sure knows how her sister works. Wait, shit, Yui’s getting my uniform’s coat all messy with her cake!

A week went by. It was the day after the exams, I was at home, sitting at my computer. The exams took their toll on me, I was still a bit exhausted. Or maybe it was because I stayed up late playing video games yesterday, I don’t know. I was resting my elbow on the table, browsing through my favorite message board. Nothing new, only the same, old shit. Man, I’m bored. I glanced at my phone. Maybe I should ask if someone wants to hang out?

And at that moment my phone began to vibrate, which took me by surprise. I grabbed it, checking the lid: the caller was Ui. I wasn’t even surprised.

“What’s up?” I answered the phone, shutting down my computer at the same time.

“Hey, Eiji-kun! Are you busy right now?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Not at all. So, you want me to come over?”

“Actually, I’m currently heading to a park. It’s near the shopping district. Do you know the place?”

I tried to remember if I’ve ever seen such park. “…eh, I’m not sure, but if it’s near the shopping district, I think I can manage to find it. So, what’s happening there?”

“There’s a local talent show. Sis and Azusa-chan are participating.”

Hold on, aren’t those events mostly for elderly people? What are those two gals doing there? As I got dressed into my red hoodie, I asked Ui about it. She told me about their neighbor, an elderly woman named Ichimonji Tomi. According to Ui, she has always been like a grandmother to her and her sister. The talent show’s grand price is a hot springs vacation, which Yui would like to win for Ichimonji. It’s so sweet it almost makes me want to puke, but since I had nothing better to do, I guess I could go and watch the show. As Ui finished explaining the situation, I had already gotten my shoes on and stepped outside.

Approximately half an hour later I found myself roaming around the area surrounding the shopping district. I finally managed to find the park Ui was talking about. It was hard to miss, since it held a stage, with dozens of people watching the show. As I entered the park and walked closer to the stage, I read the text on the banner hanging above the stage: 32nd Talent Show. Would a bit of creativity kill you when coming up with a name? I guess this is this neighborhood’s annual tradition. My neighborhood has one, too: everyone always gathers at Nakamura-san’s café to celebrate its anniversary.

As I got closer to the bench rows in front of the stage, I quickly noticed how many elderly people were present. I guess they care about the neighborhood traditions more than those pesky kids with their wild hairstyles and their noisy music… Just kidding, I don’t have a problem with old people. I recognized Ui from the audience. She was sitting in the backmost row. After making absolutely sure that it was her, I walked up behind her, and poked her on the shoulder.

“Yo.”

As I had hoped, she flinched a bit, and quickly turned around, an annoyed smile on her face.

“E-Eiji-kun, don’t scare me like that,” she said in a low voice, probably as to not disturb the audience. Maybe I should keep my voice down, too.

Ah, shit. A few people sitting in front of Ui turned around to look at me… Hold on a minute. They’re the members of Yui’s club. I also recognized the two people sitting next to Ui: One of them was the club’s advisor, Sawako, and the other one was Nodoka. For some reason they all were wearing hats, which was why I didn’t recognize them at first. They were all staring at me, clearly confused. Guess Ui didn’t tell them about me coming along, huh… Ui scooched over to make some room for me, and I sat down next to her. I tried my best to ignore the other girls glancing at me, and just concentrate on the current participant on the stage. It was some old man, telling some story. Or a very long and complicated joke, you never know.

A few participants later, the announcer finally said: “Next up is Entry No. 14: YuiAzu!”

YuiAzu? Man, this will definitely be interesting. The audience gave some light applause, and the two said girls climbed to the stage, carrying their guitars. Both of them were wearing red kimonos, and had their hairs tied all ceremonial-like. They both introduced themselves, making some noises with their guitars in the process. It was a bit too cringeworthy for me, but I decided to just bite my lip and see how it’ll go.

As the audience gave another light applause, I could hear Tainaka speaking: “Yui sounds like her usual self.”

“Azusa-chan looks stiff,” Kotobuki added.

Akiyama lowered her head, muttering: “I’m getting nervous just watching them.”

I feel like shooting myself just watching them, I wanted to blurt out, but I’m sure these gals wouldn’t appreciate my joke. I just kept quiet, giving a few claps.

Yui said something about practicing something. I’m not sure, I wasn’t paying much attention. Azusa, however, corrected her and hit her on the head with a harisen. Ah, so it’s a Manzai act. I’ve never cared much for them, but as I mentioned before, most of the audience consisted of elderly people, so I guess Manzai is a good way to get their approval.

“I’m the older one, but Azunyan is more smarter,” Yui said.

“It’s just “smarter,”” Azusa corrected her, giving her another blow on the head with her harisen.

“Should we play a song?” Yui suggested.

Azusa nodded. “Let’s do that.”

They stood quietly for a few seconds.

Yui directed her gaze somewhere. “Wait, what were we supposed to play?”

“Give me a break!” Azusa said, hitting Yui once again.

Laughs could be heard from the audience, which was a good sign. Actually, something about Azusa’s over-serious acting made me chuckle a bit, too.

Yui raised her guitar pick, and announced: “We’re going to play “Brush pen, Ballpoint Pen: YuiAzu version.””

Yui counted to three, and the both of them began playing the song. But it wasn’t the usual version I’ve fallen in love with, no. As she announced just seconds ago, it was a different version. It was more chill, almost jazzy, should I say. And I liked it. The audience seemed to like it, too, since they started to clap along the rhythm. After a while, I decided to do the same. For now, it was only Yui singing, but I’m sure Azusa will join her as they get to the chorus. I can’t wait to hear it—

Ding, dong!

It was that fucking bell. The bell that announced the end of current performance. God damn it, they ran out of time, and their performance was over. I guess that’s it, then.

The girls and I had the same idea: leaving. Yui and Azusa stayed in the park, waiting for the talent show’s winner to be announced. While the rest of the girls headed to their homes, I decided to stick with Ui and head to the Hirasawa residence, since I was eager to find out about the results. We got to the house, and spent our time by drinking tea. As the sun was starting to set, turning the sky orange, Ui received a message from Yui. She told that they’d be coming over to eat some chirashizushi made by Ichimonji. And, of course, it didn’t say anything about the results, which was the only thing I cared about. So, we decided to go wait for them outside.

I sat down on the edge of the elevated yard tiling, and Ui took a seat next to me. The setting sun colored everything orange, creating some long shadows in the process. Placing my hands behind me for support, I leaned backwards, looking at the partly clouded sky. I could hear Ui humming Yui’s and Azusa’s song. Man, I’m still pissed off about that fucking bell. If my temper was any shorter, I probably would’ve raised a fuss about it. And embarrassed the girls in the process, and maybe getting myself kicked out of the park… Yeah, it’s best to control myself.

I glanced at Ui. The sun had colored her face golden orange, and it was almost as if her eyes were shining. I kept looking at her for a while, until I came back to my senses, and turned my gaze away.

“You know, there’s one thing I don’t get…” I muttered, getting her attention.

“Why were the rest of the gals wearing hats?”

Ui cocked her head, puzzled. “Oh, um… I’m not sure.”

“…I’m not really a hat user, myself,” I muttered. Man, what a trivial and pointless thing to say, but I just wanted to spark some conversation.

Ui seemed to think about something. “…now that you mention it, neither am I.”

I glanced at her. “Maybe because of your ponytail. I don’t think it’d suit with many hats.”

“Eh?” Ui muttered, reaching her hand towards her ponytail. “But, I like this hairstyle…”

I hastily fixed my posture. “N-no, I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, I like it too, I just tried to come up with some rational explanations.”

Ui, confused, stared at me for a few seconds. “…you like my hairstyle?”

Aw, shit, I just said that out loud, didn’t I?

“Yeah, I mean, I’m so used to seeing you with a ponytail, so it’d be weird if you’d suddenly change your hairstyle…” I said in a low voice, glancing downwards. Ugh, this is getting awkward.

It was quiet for a while, until I could hear Ui chuckle. “And I’m so used to seeing you in your red hoodie.”

I couldn’t come up with anything to say, so I just snickered quietly, nodding for an answer.

“Hello~!” a cheerful voice greeted us.

We turned around to face the voice. It was Yui, with Azusa next to her. Ah, so they finally returned… wait, how long have they been standing there. Those smiles look a bit sketchy… I, however, quickly noticed the short, old lady with them. Ah, so this must be Ichimonji Tomi. We decided to stand up, and walk over to them.

“Hello, Ui-chan,” Ichimonji greeted Ui. Her voice was warm and kind, it reminded me of my grandma.

She, then, turned to face me. “Now, who might he be?”

“Me? Uh, I’m Sugimoto. Sugimoto Eiji,” I introduced myself.

She turned to face Ui with a warm smile on her face. “My, what a handsome gentleman you have found for yourself.”

“E-e-eh?” Ui stuttered. I bet she was blushing as hard as I was, which was hard to see due to the setting sun.

“N-no, we’re not dating.”

Ichimonji seemed a bit puzzled. “Oh? But you two seem like such a cute couple.” Wait, seriously, how long were they standing behind us!?

“Just friends, that’s all,” I muttered, scratching my cheek, and glancing elsewhere.

I happened to look at Yui and Azusa. Both of them had amused smiles on their faces. Maybe I should tell them to shove it… I then happened to recall the reason I was standing here in the first place.

“Oh, right. How did it go, did you guys win?”

Their smiles were gone. After few seconds of silence, both of them turned their heads in different directions, muttering in unison: “We got a consolation price.”

I took a moment to process the information, until I clicked my tongue and crossed my arms. “Man, those things are rigged, anyway.”

My comment caused the girls, and the old lady, chuckle.

Ichimonji turned to face me. “We’re going to eat some chirashizushi I made earlier. You can join us, if you want, Eiji-chan.”

Eiji-chan? I’m not exactly a kid anymore, but whatever. No matter if you’re seven or seventeen, it doesn’t make any difference to elderly people.

I thought about it for a bit, and nodded. “Sure.”

And man, was it some good chirashizushi, with sweet shiitake and everything.

Chapter Text

It was mid-July. Only a week until the summer vacation would begin, and also a few days until my birthday. It was noon, and I was late for school. Not that I cared much about it. As I strolled along the street towards the school, I couldn’t help but notice how warm it was. Even though I was wearing my summer uniform, I was still sweating like hell. I finally got to the school, changed my shoes, stopped by the cafeteria to by myself a sandwich and a juice, and headed down to the basement. Right as I got to the club room, I walked over to the air conditioner near one of the windows. I clapped my hands together, and bowed to it.

“Thank you for your service.”

“The hell are you doing?” I could hear Tadaaki muttering from one of the couches.

“Being grateful, you dick,” I quipped to him, and turned to face the kitchen. “Huh, no coffee?”

Ichiro raised a tall drinking glass in his hand. “It’s thousand degrees outside, so we decided to make some iced coffee. There’s some in the fridge.”

I glanced at the fridge, sucking in some air between by teeth. “…iced coffee, huh…”

Tadaaki chuckled. “Don’t worry. It’s made using the Founder’s recipe. It’s actually pretty good. Give it a try.”

Oh, in that case, I might as well do that. The club’s Founder had gathered dozens of coffee recipes in his blue notebook. During our time here, we’ve tried most of them out, and all of them have proved to be delicious. I dug out a glass from the cupboard, took the iced coffee jug out of the fridge and poured myself some. I tasted it a bit, and yeah, it sure was good. I carried the glass over to the couches, and was just about to sit down on the one, vacant couch, until Tadaaki hastily stopped me.

“Dude, it’s a leather couch!”

Oh, right. Leather couches don’t mix well with the heat. So, I took a seat next to Tadaaki on the fabric couch. I dug out the sandwich from my pocket, tore the plastic open, and took a bite.

“…by the way, how’s the situation with that summer job of yours?” Ichiro asked, resting his wrist on his forehead.

I swallowed the bread in my mouth. “Oh, right. I got accepted.”

Ichiro seemed to flinch a bit. “Huh, really?”

“Yup,” I nodded, sipping my iced coffee. “Actually, I’m supposed to meet my employer later today. We’ll discuss the job more comprehensively.”

I took another bite out of my sandwich, and turned my gaze upwards. “…I proposed that we’d meet up in Nakamura-san’s café. For some reason, I wouldn’t want the employer to come to my home.”

Tadaaki shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I get what you mean.”

Ichiro had a vicious grin on his face. “What if we stopped by to say hello?”

“Then you’ll leave with two of your teeth missing,” I muttered to him, sipping my iced coffee.

“Alright, I get you,” he said, snickering.

No one had any more comments on the subject, so I resumed eating. That meeting is the reason why I came so late to school. I could barely get any sleep last night. I mean, I already got accepted, but I was still nervous.

Hours later, I was sitting in my house’s foyer, getting my shoes on.

“I’m off.”

My mom peeked from the kitchen. “Dressed like that?”

I glanced at her over my shoulder. “Mom, I’m going to be a domestic worker, I’m pretty sure I don’t need a tuxedo to make an impression.”

She seemed to think about it, until she smiled. “Well, suit yourself. Try to be back home by dinner time.”

“Yeah, sure,” I answered, stepping out of the door.

It was still warm, but not as hot as earlier today. Maybe it’s for the best, I was already sweating enough due to my nervousness. I was heading towards the river bank, where the café is located. Nakamura has kept it running for 25 years now. Of course, he doesn’t run it alone. His family also helps him, including Yoshiko (who is currently studying in a far away college), since it’s a family business, after all. If you happen to find yourself in this neighborhood and are craving for some coffee, that’s your go-to place.

It wasn’t long until I arrived at the café, and stepped inside, the bell above the door chiming. Though coffee might not be many people’s preferred drink during warm days, there still were a few customers inside, drinking their steaming drinks. As I slowly walked towards the counter, I scanned the tables for the person I was supposed to meet. And then I found him. Old man, gray hair, a magnificent mustache, and a white collar shirt with a black vest on top of it. A really businesslike looking gentleman, matching the description I was given. He was sitting at the backmost table, drinking coffee, and reading a newspaper.

“Ah, Eiji-kun. Just a cup of coffee as usual?”

The voice made me flinch a bit. I turned to face the counter, finding Nakamura’s son, Noritaka, behind it. I quickly dug out my wallet, counting the coins, and setting them on the counter.

“Uh, yeah. Could you please bring it to that table over there?” I asked, pointing at the table I was eyeing at earlier.

He looked at the table and seemed a bit surprised, but didn’t ask any questions. “Of course.”

Taking a few deep breaths, I walked over to the table. It took some seconds for the man to notice my presence, when he finally raised his gaze from the newspaper towards me.

“Uh, hi. I hope I’m not late.”

The man checked his watch, and snorted. “Oh, not at all.” Man, I can barely see his mouth move behind that mustache.

“Huh, great,” I muttered nervously, taking a seat across from him.

The man folded his newspaper, and set it aside. “Sugimoto-san, I presume?”

I nodded. “Yeah. And you’re Kotobuki-san?”

“Unfortunately, no. Due to work-related business meetings, Kotobuki-sama has been unable to come in person. I’m Saitou, the Kotobuki household’s butler,” he introduced himself.

“A-a butler…?” I muttered under my breath, confused as hell. God damn, just what kind of a person my employer is?

Thoughts were racing in my head. “So, uh, if you’re already a butler, then—”

Saitou, however, quickly cut me off by raising his hand, explaining: “Kotobuki-sama supports youth employment, thus he wants to provide part-time jobs in his home, despite the fact that many professional people are already working there, like me, for example. He believes the best way to learn a job is by following a professional’s example.”

“…I, uh, see,” I said with a slow nod.

It was at that moment when Noritaka brought my coffee to the table. I took the most refreshing sip I’ve ever taken.

“Moving on…” Saitou muttered.

He raised a suitcase on his lap, opened it, and grabbed some papers, most likely forms and such. His eyes were caught on one of them.

“In your application, you told that you’d be suitable for this job, since you have over five years of experience when it comes to domestic work. It his information still correct?”

I nodded, two times just to be sure. Saitou kept reading the paper for a while, until he moved on to the next one.

“Your job will begin on the first Monday of August. Your employment will last for two weeks. The workdays are from Monday to Friday, from 9am to 4pm. Weekends are off.”

Shit, only two weeks, and only seven hour days? I mean, yeah, at least I don’t have to waste all of my summer, but the main reason I applied was to get money. And I’m not sure if I’ll make any with those working hours.

As I was thinking, Saitou suddenly pulled out a single piece of paper, showing it to me. “And here’s your hourly wage. At the bottom, you’ll see how much you’ll be paid in total, assuming that you won’t skip a single hour.”

…..

…holy shit.

I could buy a whole new computer with that!

Saitou probably took my astonished expression as a sign that I had read the paper, so he retracted it, and moved on to the next one. I quickly came back to my senses, and sipped my coffee to refresh my mind a little.

“Your worktime includes a 45 minute lunch break. The lunch is on the house, and won’t be subtracted from your pay. We will also provide you with appropriate clothing,” he explained.

“I also should tell you about the terms of employment, but honestly speaking, they’re all just common sense,” he explained, chuckling a bit behind his mustache. “Just don’t steal anything, don’t break anything, respect your surroundings and your fellow workers, don’t come to work drunk… Well, you probably know what I’m talking about.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said, nodding.

Saitou nodded, too, and handed me a form and a pen. “Here, read this through, and sign it.”

Alright, let’s see here… Yup, seems about right. Or not, I don’t fucking know, this is the first time I’ve applied for a job. Well, it doesn’t say anything about me agreeing on becoming some human guinea pig, so I guess I’m fine with it. I grabbed the pen, and wrote down all four kanjis of my name as finely as I could. I then handed the form back to Saitou.

“Capital,” he said with a nod, and handed me a new paper. “This is for you. It contains the address of your workplace, some contact information, and a reminder of your workhours. I’ll act as your supervisor for the first few days, after which you’re expected to be able to handle work on your own. Now, are there any questions you would like to ask?”

Yeah, actually. Why the fuck am I paid so much!?

I shook my head. “No, I think I got everything.”

Saitou nodded with a smile, gulped down the rest of his coffee, and gathered his belongings. He stood up, and faced me.

“In that case, we’ll meet again in a few weeks. I’ll be looking forward to working with you. Until then, I bid you farewell.”

“Uh, sure. Bye,” I answered.

He began walking away, and it wasn’t long until the bell above the door chimed. Man, just what kind of an employer do I have? What the hell was up with that pay? I mean, considering the butler, he must be rich, but… Is it even legal to pay that much for two weeks of work? I checked the paper he handed me a minute ago, and read it through multiple times, sipping my coffee once in a while.

It was the next week. I got to the school, this time early, and headed straight to the club room. As I stepped inside, I wasn’t sure what I was more surprised about: that both of my friends were also present so early, or the fact that they weren’t laying on the couches as usual. Both of them were in the kitchen area. Couple of seconds after I opened the door, they turned around to face me.

“Hey, Eiji! Happy birthday!” Tadaaki shouted, throwing his hand in the air.

“Congratulations, dude!” Ichiro added.

I closed the door and stepped further into the room, throwing by bag on the couch. “Yeah, thanks.”

However, the congratulations weren’t enough. Tadaaki beckoned me over.

“Come here, I want to show you something.”

Puzzled a bit, I walked to the kitchen area. The guys were standing around a single pot of coffee. It seemed to be freshly made.

“Grab a cup,” Ichiro insisted excitedly.

Man, what’s this about? Are they finally going to poison me? Eh, I guess I’ll bite. I grabbed a cup from the cupboard, and poured myself some of that oh-so-special coffee. I could almost sense the guys’ impatience as I brought the cup closer to my lips. Just what the fuck is in this cup? Well, only one way to find out. I took a sip.

…huh?

I took another sip, this time tasting the coffee more carefully.

…oh, shit.

“Guys?” I muttered under my breath.

“Is this…?”

It was quiet for a few seconds, until Tadaaki grinned, and nodded. “Jamaican Blue Mountain? Yup, it is.”

Blue Mountain. Blue-fucking-Mountain. The club’s Founder stated in his blue notebook that the Blue Mountain coffee beans are the best he has ever tasted. And man, I can’t blame him. I can’t blame anyone at all.

Ichiro chuckled. “A small bag of those beans cost us about 10 000 yens.”

I turned to look at the guys. “Wait, all that for me?

“No, of course not. Who the hell you think you are?” Tadaaki quipped. “Obviously, we had to drink it at some point, so we might as well do it now.”

“Oh?” I muttered, and soon smirked. “…well then, help yourselves.”

I turned 18 that day. In most parts of the worlds I’d be considered an adult, but not in Japan, so I’ll have to wait a bit longer until I can buy my own beers and not rely on Tadaaki and his contacts. Still, birthdays always feel nice.

Few hours went by, and it was already lunch break. The guys and I were on our way to the cafeteria to buy some sandwiches. However, as we were walking through the lobby, I felt a vibration in my pocket, so I dug out my phone. Ui was calling me.

“You guys go on ahead, I’ll answer this,” I said to them, showing them my vibrating phone.

Ichiro grinned. “Some girl, perhaps?” Man thinks he’s so funny and all.

“Yeah,” I said, turning towards the main doors.

Ichiro’s grin was gone. “…huh, wait, seriously? Hey, dude, wait!”

His shouts echoed in the lobby as I completely ignored him and walked out of the doors. I answered the call, simultaneously scoping out a peaceful place to talk.

“Well hello there, how can I help you?”

“Hey, Eiji-kun! Happy birthday!” Ui said cheerily.

I spotted a vacant bench not too far away, so I began heading there. “What are you talking about?”

“…eh?” Ui muttered, confused. “I, uh, um… I-It’s your birthday today, isn’t it?”

I didn’t even have time to answer until I began hearing my sister’s annoyed voice from the phone. “Of course it is! Eiji-chan, you are an idiot!”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, it is my birthday. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the temptation.”

I finally got to the bench and took a seat. I glanced around, making sure no one was too close. It’s not that I cared about keeping Ui a secret anymore, I just prefer privacy during phone calls.

“I agree with Tamiko,” I could hear Jun’s voice. “You’re an idiot, Eiji-kun.”

“A total idiot,” stated Azusa’s voice.

I… guess Ui’s phone is on speaker? Better be more careful with my words. Even though Ui will forgive me easily, those three other ladies will not.

Chuckling to myself a bit, I said: “I’ve got a feeling that you didn’t call me just to congratulate me.”

“You’re right. I was thinking that we could celebrate your birthday at my house after school. Does it suit you?” Ui asked.

Huh, I always thought that Ui was more of a ‘surprise birthday party’ kind of gal. Well, whatever, maybe it’s for the best. With my luck, I would’ve just gone drinking with the guys and completely ignored the requests to come over to the Hirasawa residence.

“Sure, I’m fine with that,” I said, nodding to myself. “Got any cake?”

“Oh, of course. I already baked one yesterday.”

She did? Man, all this attention is overwhelming.

Oh, so that cake was for Eiji-kun?

Wait a minute, that sounded like Yui.

“Ah, sis!” I could hear Ui saying, surprised. “Yes, it’s for him. Uh, why are you here, anyway?”

We came to get Azunyan,” I could hear her explaining, after which she got closer to the phone. “Happy birthday, Eiji-kun!”

“Uh, yeah, thanks,” I muttered, confused a bit.

Another faint voice could be heard from the phone: “Ah, it’s Sugimoto-san’s birthday?” It sounded like Tainaka.

…wait a minute…

“Uh, Ui-san? Where exactly are you right now?” I asked.

“Huh? At school, of course.”

I shook my head, clarifying: “No, I meant where? In what part of the school?”

“Oh? In my classroom, why?” Ui asked, sounding confused.

“…on a speakerphone?”

“Yes. It’s lunch break, so I thought it wouldn’t bother others that much,” she said.

Everyone, wish happy birthday for Sugimoto-san!” I could hear Tainaka’s shout echoing.

…fuck this.

“Text me the details, I’ve got to go now, bye,” I said swiftly, ending the call right after.

With a very heavy sigh, I slipped the phone back into my pocket. I had reached greater levels of awkwardness and embarrassment than ever before. Didn’t Ui realize that it would attract attention to be in all-girls high school and call a dude on speakerphone? Or maybe it was someone else, most likely Jun, who told her to do it, and Ui just didn’t think the whole thing through? Good fucking thing I didn’t say anything overly stupid. As I thought about a scenario where I would’ve done so, I began tapping my fingers on the bench, which slowly turned into outright slapping. Sighing once more, I stood up, and headed back inside.

The school was soon over, and the guys and I headed to the club room. According to the text message I got from Ui, they wouldn’t start the party until Yui, Azusa and Jun would be done with their club activities. Apparently, my sister is going with Ui to her house to help with preparations. All this meant that I had some time to spare, so might as well drink one more cup of Blue Mountain before heading home.

I got home, only to find the house empty, save for Dash. Maybe my parents went somewhere? Oh god, hopefully not to buy anything for my birthday. I quickly dug out my phone, texting my mom about the fact that I won’t be home until dark. I also added a promise about not drinking a single drop of alcohol. I headed upstairs to my room, and changed into my jeans and red hoodie. I killed some time by browsing the internet, until it was time for me to go.

As I walked along the street, I dug out my phone, looking at the phone charm hanging from it. A blue flower, not so blue anymore, but still resembling a flower. I bought it few years ago when celebrating my junior high graduation with Ui and the others. It reminds me about the fact that there are people who care about me. People who I care about. Man, how can such a small piece of plastic hold so much emotional value?  I slipped the phone back into my pocket as I continued on walking. This route is so familiar to me that I could walk it with my eyes closed. There’s that same, cool sports car on that house’s driveway, a bit further away from it is a house with beautiful garden, and there’s that same cat, lying on top of a fence.

For the thousandth time, I arrived at the Hirasawa residence. As usual, there was no car on the driveway, and I began completely questioning its existence. I walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. I heard someone skipping down the stairs clumsily. There’s only one person who walks the stairs down like that. As I guessed, it was Yui who answered the door. She was still wearing her school uniform.

“Ah, Eiji-kun! Come on in, the rest are already here.”

“Thanks for standing my presence,” I quipped, making her confused.

As I followed Yui up the stairs, I quickly realized something. There were lots of pairs of shoes in the foyer. Just how many people are here? I didn’t have time to think about it as I reached the living room. Turning to face it, I saw everyone. Ui, Jun, my sis, Azusa, and the rest of Yui’s club.

Happy birthday!

Their sudden yell made me flinch a bit. Countless of emotions were racing in my head. I was surprised, confused, embarrassed, happy… Man, this is just overwhelming.

As they were clapping, I slowly raised my hand to scratch the back of my head. “…the whole gang’s here, huh?”

The clapping slowly stopped, and Ui nodded with a smile. “I decided to invite everyone.”

I turned to look at the members of Yui’s club, who were sitting around the coffee table. They were all wearing their school uniforms, meaning they came here right after their club activities ended. And they were smiling at me, not out of malice, but out of joy.

“Of course we had to come and congratulate Eiji-san!” Tainaka grinned.

Hm, I didn’t know I mattered that much to them.

“Besides, there’s no way I’d skip Ui’s treats.”

Ah, of course, there’s the actual reason. The mask is off… Wait a minute, what did she call me?

Akiyama was in the middle of scolding Tainaka for her blurt, when I quickly cut her off: “Hold on, we’re on a first-name basis now?”

Tainaka kept looking at me for a couple of seconds. “Ui-chan told us to give it a try,” she said, nodding towards the said girl.

I glanced at Ui, who was just standing in front of the kitchen doorway with a smile on her face. Why must you insist on everyone to call be my first name?

“…alright then, Ritsu-san.”

Tainak… Ritsu flinched a bit, and looked uncomfortable. Yeah, gal, that’s how I feel too, but I guess there’s no turning back now. Get used to it.

Yui, who was standing in front of me, realized something, and turned to face me with an excited expression. “Oh, we usually call her ‘Ricchan’. Maybe you should, too!”

Before I could even open my mouth, Ritsu crabbed her head, crying out: “No way that guy is calling me that!” I bet everyone’s laughter could be heard by the neighbors.

I slowly moved myself to the table, at the same time taking a look at the coffee table. And man, was it full of stuff. A big cake, pastries, snacks, both sweet and salty… Damn, my stomach is going to be sore tomorrow. I took a seat at my usual spot, finding my sis and Jun on my right. Ui moved herself to the table, taking a seat on my left, followed by her sister. Now that everybody was sitting at the table, Ui began cutting the cake, serving me the first slice. God damn, it has blueberries and white chocolate inside!

Time went by as everyone was eating what the table had to offer, talking with each other, and simply just having fun. For some reason, I felt obligated to talk with every guest personally. Mio, Ritsu and I shared some fun memories from our time in the junior high. Tsumugi, having heard from my sister about our Northern European heritage, was excited to talk about it, since she has some European genetics, too. Yeah, I had guessed that already, there’s not many Japanese people with blonde hair and blue eyes. With Azusa, I talked about guitars and music. Yui jumped in to the conversation, saying that I should bring Patricia over someday, since ‘Giita misses her friend’. Jun and Tamiko were talking by themselves, maybe conspiring against me? At the end of the day, I ended up talking with Ui the most. Maybe because she was sitting right next to me, or maybe because we could have fluent conversations. But, in any case, I enjoyed myself.

The sky was starting to turn dark orange. I was in the middle of playing cards with Yui’s club, when I noticed my sister standing up and walking a bit further away to answer her phone. It made me check my own phone, maybe someone had sent me some congratulating messages. I opened my phone’s lid, only to find the battery dead. Ugh, and I thought I was always so precise about keeping my phone charged… I slipped the phone back into my pocket with a sigh.

“Heeey, Eiji-san,” Ritsu called out for me in a low voice. “It’s your turn.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered, checking the cards in my hands.

After pondering about my hand for a bit, I decided to change only a single card.

It was quiet for a bit. It’s time for the showdown.

Mio showed her cards sheepishly. “Only a pair of threes.”

“Oh, I’ve got a pair of fours!” Yui yelled out excitedly, showing her own cards.

“Nothing,” Tsumugi said, looking almost too happy about it.

Ritsu grinned confidently, and slapped her cards on the table. “Three aces, how about that?”

Everyone turned to face me. Still keeping my poker face on, I scratched my ear as to waste their time, and turned my cards around.

“Flush.”

Ritsu’s grin disappeared slowly as she was gazing at my cards. Indeed, five clovers. I finally could stop pretending, and smirked.

“Ooh!” Tsumugi muttered, seemingly impressed, and gave me a quiet applause.

“Huh, he won again!?” Ritsu cried out. “He’s cheating! He must be!”

I dropped the cards on the table, noting: “Hey, you’re the one shuffling the cards.”

As I was watching Ritsu growling out of frustration, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, finding my sister behind me.

“We’ll be leaving soon.”

“Oh?” I muttered, and began to stand up.

Tamiko, however, pushed me back down. “I said soon, not now.” Her bossing caused the other girls to chuckle.

Wanting to wipe those grins off their faces, I tapped on the table. “Well, come on, shuffle the deck.”

Ritsu frowned, until she began gathering the cards. “This time I’ll make sure I shuffle them well!”

Ten minutes passed as we continued on playing. I was just about to reveal my three queens and a joker, when the sound of the doorbell made everyone halt.

“Hm, who might that be?” Ui muttered to herself as she headed to the stairs.

I was wondering that, too. Oh god, I hope it’s not Tadaaki. I turned to look at my sister, who was looking back at me. It took me a couple of seconds to connect the pieces. Is this what she meant by ‘we’re leaving soon’? Just who is it downstairs? I heard some faint conversation, but couldn’t recognize the voice. It wasn’t long until Ui came back upstairs.

“Eiji-kun, Tamiko-chan, you have a guest.”

A guest? Confused, I once again turned to look at Tamiko, who didn’t seem surprised at all. So I was right. I didn’t have to ponder about it much longer, when the person appeared from the stairs.

It was Daichi, my big brother.

Silence filled the room. Daichi seemed both surprised and awkward as he was eyeing all the girls in the living room. Man, just say something. Or maybe I should.

“Yo, bro,” I greeted him, raising my hand.

It helped him to come back to his senses. “Oh, right, hi.”

“So, uh, what are you doing here?” I asked the question on everyone’s mind.

“Well, I got few days off from work, so I decided to come here, I arrived earlier today. Since you weren’t home, I tried calling you, but to no affair,” he explained. Ah, right, my phone’s out of charge.

He raised his hand towards Tamiko. “So I called Tamiko to ask if she knew where you were. She told me that you guys were in this address, and asked me to pick you up. So I borrowed dad’s car, and drove here.”

…huh.

For the third time, I turned to face Tamiko, who was just smiling. “It’s getting late, so I thought we could use a ride home.”

Taking some seconds to process the situation, I slowly got to my feet. “…alright then, guess we’ll be heading home.”

Realizing I still had the cards in my hand, I dropped them on the table. “Four queens.”

“What!?” Ritsu cried out, making me grin.

The gals wishing me happy birthday once more, we said our goodbyes to each other. Ui escorted us to the door, where I thanked her for hosting the party. She said she was glad to do it, and waved me goodbye before closing the door. Our dad’s car was parked on the parking lot, right across from the Hirasawa residence.

“Hold on, when did you get a driver’s license?” I asked.

He patted the wallet in his pocket. “Some months ago, I kinda need it with my job. I’m currently saving for my own car.”

“Huh, that so…” I muttered as I got into the passenger seat.

I quickly noticed some kind of plastic bag on the floor, in front of the seat. It was in my way, so I picked it up, and was about to move it to the back seat.

“Hold on,” Daichi said, having just gotten into the driver’s seat. “Take a peek inside.”

Raising an eyebrow, I checked inside the bag. It held an 8-pack of beer.

Quietly chuckling to my surprised reaction, Daichi instructed me: “When we get home, take it straight to your room, hide it somewhere. And if mom and dad find it, you didn’t get it from me.”

I nodded for an answer, setting the bag down on my lap. Tamiko, who was sitting in the back seat, just sighed, not saying anything. Sorry, sis, but this is who I am. And hey, it’d be rude to refuse a birthday present.

Starting the car and getting out of the parking lot, Daichi asked: “…so, what exactly was the deal there?”

“Huh?” I muttered.

“They didn’t seem to be just Tamiko’s friends, and one of them was calling you ‘Eiji-kun’.”

I kept looking at him for a while, until I turned my gaze out the window. “Just some friends I’ve come to know over the years.”

Daichi began chuckling, and gave me a light punch to the shoulder. “Man, you’ve got a harem!”

“You’re just projecting your own fantasies onto me,” I muttered, unamused.

He just kept on laughing. “Yeah, yeah, I know what’s going on behind the curtains. Or should I say sheets.”

He was really getting on my nerves. “Dude, shut the fuck up before I make us crash the car!”

“Oh? You and what army?” he grinned.

I was about to yell at him again, until Tamiko reached over, hitting him on the head with the edge of her palm.

“Shut your mouth, you idiot! You’re a disgusting pervert!”

Daichi covered his head with his other hand. “Alright, sorry. I was just kidding…” he muttered in a low voice.

I’ve never beaten Daichi in a fight, it’s something only Tamiko can do. If only she could protect herself like this from the world, I wouldn’t have to beat people up for picking on her.

We soon got home, and to my relief, mom had read my message and hadn’t made a cake or anything. She was actually in the middle of preparing dinner. I ate a lot back at the Hirasawa residence, but I guess I could grab a bite or to. It took some time for the dinner to be ready, and just as I expected, I couldn’t get but two bites down before feeling like bursting. That’s why I was the first to bring my dishes to the sink. However, as I was doing that, the doorbell rang. Since I was close to the door, I decided to answer it. To my complete surprise, I found Ui standing on the porch.

“Hey, Eiji-kun,” she greeted me with a smile.

A bit dumbstruck, it took me some seconds to answer: “Uh, hi. What are you doing here?”

I noticed that she was carrying a handbag. She reached into it, pulling out a small present, wrapped in pink wrapping paper.

“I came to bring your present. I completely forgot about it since we were having so much fun.”

She handed the present over to me. I took it, examining it for a bit.

“Oh, uh, thanks,” I said, still feeling a bit surprised.

Ui cocked her head with a smile. “Well, that’s pretty much it. I’ll be heading home now.”

“Alright. Have a…” I was about to say, but my voice drifted off as I thought about something.

I quickly turned around, leaving the present on the foyer’s floor, picking up my shoes, and stepping on the porch.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said into the house before closing the door.

As I was getting the shoes on, Ui looked at me confusedly. “Uh, Eiji-kun?”

Getting back on my feet, I turned to face her. “I just need some fresh air, that’s all. I can walk you out of the neighborhood, if you don’t mind.”

She was thinking about it, still confused a bit, until she nodded with a smile. “Well, alright, then.”

We stepped off the porch. Looking up, I was met with a darkened sky. Man, it’s late, and she ventured all the way here just to deliver me a present? We walked along the street, our path lit by street lamps, and it wasn’t long until we began conversating.

“You know, you could’ve just given the present to me some other time,” I said.

Ui shook her head. “That would never do. It’s your birthday, so you should receive your present right away. And you didn’t, because I was too careless…”

Looking at her sorry expression, I tried to comfort her: “Nah, don’t worry about it. I didn’t expect to get any presents, anyway, so I appreciate it.” It seemed to do the trick, as she was smiling again.

I looked a bit around, trying to come up with something to say about this neighborhood, until I remembered a certain fact. “Hold on, don’t Mio-san and Ritsu-san live nearby? Couldn’t you have just asked for them to deliver the present?”

“Well, yes, I guess so. But I wanted to deliver it myself,” she said, chuckling embarrassedly.

I was about to give her a lecture about unnecessary work, but decided to just let it be.

We kept on walking, until Ui asked: “So, that was your big brother?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Though he’s 20 years old now, he hasn’t matured a bit.”

Ui chuckled. “Well, it takes some people a bit longer. On the other hand, you’re quite mature, Eiji-kun.”

“Huh, me?” I asked confusedly.

She nodded. “Yes. Well, at least more than one would assume at the first glance.”

…the hell is that supposed to mean?

“You don’t know me very well, do you, gal?” I quipped, smiling a bit.

“Don’t underestimate yourself,” she told me. “Sure, you sometimes have a weird sense of humor, and you sometimes do very silly things, but behind all that is a very mature boy.”

She was explaining all of this with a warm smile. I, however, couldn’t smile. It all felt wrong, since it all was a lie. Maybe…

Maybe I should come straight with this.

Gathering up some courage, I slowly turned to face Ui. “…you know that I’m a delinquent, right?”

“Eh?” She looked confused. “Well, yes. Why?”

I shook my head. “I mean, not just someone who skips school every now or then. I mean… Well… One could call me a criminal.”

Her confused expression turned into a surprised one. However, she didn’t say anything. This was all stupid. I should just keep my mouth shut, but… Fuck, we’ve been friends for many years, and she still doesn’t know me fully. If I can’t be honest to her, then what the hell can I be?

“I don’t care a lot about school. I tend to solve arguments physically. I have a liking for alcohol. I used to smoke some years ago, but not anymore. Hell, it takes me some self-discipline to not curse in every other sentence,” I listed all my faults as we walked.

Ui halted. “Eiji-kun…”

I stopped, too, turning to face her. Ui looked quiet and puzzled. I felt nervous, which soon turned into a slight confusion, when Ui smiled.

“I already know all that about you.”

“…you do?” I managed to ask after few seconds of silence.

She nodded. “Yes. Tamiko-chan told me a bit about it the first time we met, and, well, I’ve figured out the rest with time.”

“…though, that smoking thing was completely new to me. Glad you don’t do it anymore.”

Just… Just what the hell is exactly going on? This isn’t going like I imagined it would. I though I’d worry her, and I’d have to explain to her about everything in more detail or something.

Trying to process the whole situation, I asked the only question on my mind: “And… it doesn’t bother you?”

“No, not at all,” she said, shaking her head, and then thinking for a bit. “Though, it does tend to make me worry about you a little. Other than that, no, it doesn’t bother me.”

I turned my gaze elsewhere for a bit, and then back at Ui. “Uh, why?”

She smiled a bit. “You said it yourself: self-discipline. From what I’ve heard, you’re trying your best to mend your ways, and that’s all that matters to me.”

I… wasn’t sure what to say. I wasn’t sure what to think, how to feel… Man, I can’t remember if I’ve ever been this speechless.

Still smiling, Ui walked closer to me. “You know, Eiji-kun… that was a really mature thing, being honest about yourself. Not many people would have the courage to do that.”

My confusion slowly changing into embarrassment, I scratched the back of my head, glancing elsewhere. “Yeah, I guess you can put it that way…”

Seemingly glad, Ui surveyed her surroundings. “Ah, I can get home from here. Thank you for escorting me, I won’t take more of your time.”

I took a look around, too. Oh, we actually walked pretty far. Eh, I guess she’ll manage.

“Alright, then. Have a good night,” I said, raising my hand for goodbye.

And then, Ui took a step towards me. Before I could say anything, she stood on her toes

 

and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

Taking many steps backwards, Ui cocked her slightly blushing head with a smile.

“Good night, Eiji-kun. And once again, happy birthday.”

.....

…!

“Hey—!” I yelled out.

But by the time I finally got to my senses, she was already long gone.

The walk home felt extremely long. When I finally got there, I kicked the shoes off, and was about to head upstairs, until I remember the present. Turning around and picking it up, I headed upstairs to my room. My legs felt weak as I moseyed to my bed, crashing on it.

I kept my face buried in my pillow for a while, until I turned to my side. Taking some time to stare at nothing, I looked at the pink present, still in my hand. Hesitating for a moment, I finally tore off the wrap. It was a collection of CD cases. The Best of Irish Rock from 80’s and 90’s. I actually already owned a couple of those cases, but I didn’t care.

Gathering up some strength, I walked over to my computer table, taking a seat. My computer was already on, so only thing I needed to do was open the CD drive, and pop one of the discs in. It took some seconds for the computer to read the disk, and the first song began blasting from the speakers. Lowering the volume a bit, I rested my head on the table, listening to the music.

It sounded good, but it was hard to listen due to my pounding heart.

Chapter Text

You know what I like? Bright night skies. They make me think about existence, and sometimes they make me completely forget about it. Endless amount of white dots on a black canvas, you could just look at it forever.

But you know what I don’t like? Falling. I was falling through the night sky. Though, neither my clothes nor my hair were waving, like they should be when falling. Soon, the stars faded away into nothingness, and I ceased falling. There suddenly was a floor below my feet. Or I think there was, I just couldn’t see it. Everywhere I looked, I only saw darkness. Despite the lack of light, I could see myself just fine. Having no idea where to go, I just began walking. As I did that, I felt the ‘floor’ descending, almost as if I was walking down a slope or something.

I soon got to the point where the ‘floor’ was level again, and continued on walking through the abyss. I could make out some yellow light shining amongst the darkness. As I got closer, I noticed that it was actually a light orb. No, it was many light orbs, maybe a dozen or so. Floating a meter above the ground, they had formed a circle. In the middle of the circle, I spotted one more light orb. However, it wasn’t yellow, but green. The sight reminded me of some atomic structure or something.

Suddenly, the yellow lights began to approach the green light at a steady pace, shrinking the circle in the process. As they did that, I noticed something: the green light orb began fading away. Those yellow lights were doing something to it. Almost as if they were crushing it without touching it. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t bear to witness it for any longer, so I decided to put a stop to it. I ran towards the lights, waving my arms to shoo them away. Immediately, the yellow lights fled, each one in a different direction, disappearing into the darkness. The green light orb, having regained its strength, made a run for it, too. For some reason, I wanted to catch it, so I gave chase to it, but to no avail. It was simply too fast, soon disappearing into the black darkness. The black, however, turned to white.

“…urgh,” I growled, slowly opening my eyes.

Another dream about a light orb, huh…?

I kept staring at my room’s ceiling for a minute, smacking my lips, until I kicked the blanket off me. Another beautiful summer morning. However, this one wasn’t like the others: my summer job would begin today. Slowly sitting up on the edge of my bed, I scratched my head and stretched my arms. I finally got myself on my feet, and walked over to the computer table to check my watch. Huh, looks like I woke up five minutes before my alarm. After turning the alarm off, I headed to my wardrobe, checking its contents. Eh, I’ll be provided work clothing, so I guess it doesn’t really matter what I’m wearing. I ended up picking jeans and my red hoodie. What a surprise.

Stopping by the bathroom to finish my morning routines, I headed down the stairs, yawning all the way. To my surprise, I could smell the pleasant aroma of coffee. As I finally got downstairs, I turned to face the living room, noticing my sister sitting at the coffee table.

“Morning, Eiji-chan. I made some coffee for you,” she said.

“Oh, thanks,” I muttered, heading towards the kitchen.

“Morning, Eiji-kun,” Ui greeted me.

I waved my hand. “Morning to you, too.”

…wait a minute.

Taking a couple of steps backwards, I double-checked the living room. Yup, it sure was Ui, alright. She was sitting at the coffee table with my sister.

“…Ui-san?”

She turned to look at me.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

Before she could say anything, Tamiko stepped in: “I invited her.”

Ui nodded, and added: “Sis is currently on a trip with her club, and I wouldn’t want to be alone, so…” A bit embarrassed, she didn’t manage to finish her sentence, so she just chuckled sheepishly, instead.

Scratching my head, I muttered: “…huh,” and headed to the kitchen, once again.

I poured myself a cup of coffee, and carried it over to the living room, joining the girls around the coffee table. As I did that, I spotted Dash, lying in her bed as lazy as ever. Does that dog even know that huskies should be more active? I sipped my coffee, while the girls were drinking their own drinks, which I presumed to be iced tea. Parents were nowhere to be seen, but I knew exactly where each one of them were: mom was at work, and dad was sleeping after a night shift.

“Eiji-kun?” Ui called out for me. “Um, don’t get me wrong, but… it’s kinda surprising to see you up and about so early during summer vacation.”

I sipped my coffee, and nodded. “Yeah, I get what you mean. It’s because my summer job will begin today.”

Ui seemed surprised. “S-Summer job?”

“Ah, I guess I never told you about it. But yeah, I’ll be busy for the next two weeks,” I explained.

“Oh?” she muttered, and after thinking, smiled a bit. “And you told me you have no plans for the future.”

“Well, I don’t,” I said with a shrug. “I just want some extra money.”

“It’s still something,” she noted.

We kept talking for a while, until it was time for me to go. I got my shoes on, said my goodbyes, and stepped out of the house. As I got to the street, I glanced at the house over my shoulder, and let out a small sigh. Well, that went better than I expected. After my birthday, and receiving that kiss on the cheek, I’ve felt nervous around Ui. Not the scared kind of nervous, but the… Ugh, I don’t even know how to describe it. This was the first time I’ve been able to converse normally with her in over a week, maybe because I feel more comfortable at my home. Damn, I wish there was someone I could talk to about it, but I’m not sure if I trust anyone enough. Not even Tadaaki. Hell, he would probably just tease me to death.

My workplace was surprisingly close, only a fifteen-minute walk northward. According to my dad, that area was very wealthy. And sure enough, the further north I walked, the bigger the houses got. One of them had a huge, beautiful garden. Well, from what I know about Kotobuki-san, I wasn’t very surprised. After walking for a bit more, I was getting closer to the end of the street, where the Kotobuki residence is located. I could see the street ascending to the top of a hill. However, a row of trees on the edge of the hill’s top prevented me from seeing any houses. Man, I bet a house on top of that hill would cost you a fuckton. And that’s where I’m going to be working, huh… I couldn’t help but to feel nervous. As I walked up the hill, I decided to keep my eyes to the ground until I’d reach the top. I wanted to surprise myself.

I soon reached the top of the hill, but decided to keep my gaze downwards for a bit longer, walking a few steps forward. Turning my gaze to the left, I saw the surrounding neighborhood, approximately ten meters lower. Half of the hill was surrounded by larger hills, covered by lush forests. Part of me wanted to just stay there, gazing at the neighborhood and smelling the pleasant scent of a summer breeze. However, I have to go through this. So, gathering up some courage, I slowly turned around, facing the only house on top of the hill.

A beige, two-story house with crimson roof tiles. Well, it wasn’t exactly a house, but more like a goddamn mansion. It was very wide, I can’t even imagine how many rooms it has. However, the house itself wasn’t as surprising as the front yard. It was damn huge! You could fit my house in there, and still have some room to drive around. Speaking of driving, the front yard held a wide, circular driveway. The left side of the yard held a three-car garage, sporting the same colors as the house. Man, I wonder what kinds of cars that place holds. I wish I could check them out later. The driveway was bordered by bushes, flowers and whatnot. The plot itself was fenced by three-meter tall metal fences. I can’t even imagine what this whole place would cost.

…Wow. That’s all I can say.

After standing there in awestruck for a while, I finally got back to my senses. I looked around the fence, and spotted an electric gate, as tall and metallic as the rest of the set. Next to it was a door, which was obviously locked. However, there seemed to be a door buzzer of some kind with a speaker and everything. I slowly walked over to it, glancing at it nervously, and finally pressing the button. The following seconds felt really long, until I could hear a familiar voice.

“Yes?”

“Uh, it’s Sugimoto. I’m beginning my summer job here,” I answered, feeling a bit uncertain.

“Of course. Come on in, I’ll meet you by the front door.”

 As soon as he finished his sentence, I could hear the door next to me unlocking. It took me a couple of seconds to realize the situation, and I pulled the door open, stepping through it. As I began walking through the front yard, the first thing catching my attention was a gardener, who was trimming the bushes with a pair of hedge shears. He noticed me, and raised his confused gaze towards me. I just raised my hand for a greeting. He answered the gesture, and got back to his business. Yeah, I guess it’d be kinda surprising to see someone like me just moseying around on a yard like this. Thank god I’m gonna get some work clothing, because my wardrobe doesn’t hold anything to suit these standards.

I finally got to the front door. I didn’t even have to wait, since the second I stopped walking, the double doors opened. In front of me stood my new supervisor, Saitou. He was sporting the same clothing as previously; white collar shirt with a black vest on top of it.

“You’re just in time, not even a second late. Capital. Follow me, I’ll show you around the house and explain a few procedures. Don’t bother taking your shoes off,” he instructed, beckoning me to follow him.

I took one last look around, and after noticing a security camera on top of the door, I swallowed nervously, and stepped inside.

The foyer, or should I say hall, was two stories tall. Just like outside, the inside also sported beige and white colors. The floor looked like wooden, but felt like marble. Was it glazed wood, or patterned marble? In front of me were two sets of stairs, which curved towards each other in a 90 degree turn, and finally met on a T-shaped catwalk, which was a part of the house’s second floor. Between the stairs was another double door leading to the back yard, and on both of my sides were doorways to both of the house’s wings. I’m gonna need a map…

First, Saitou led me through the doorway on my left, which led to the dining room. On top of a dark wooden floor was a damn long dining table, with 12 chairs around it. The dining room also hosted a bar. Continuing through the room, we ended up in the house’s kitchen. Everything was shiny and fancy. A huge fridge, two stoves and ovens… It’s like a restaurant or something. I spotted a dark haired guy wearing chef’s clothing. He looked European.

“This is our chef, Provenza. He’s Italian, but can speak Japanese fluently,” Saitou explained. “Your work in the kitchen will include doing the dishes, setting the table before lunch, and basic cleaning.”

“Got it,” I said with a nod.

We were just about to leave the kitchen, until Saitou recalled something. “Oh, right, your lunchtime will be from 12 to 12:45. You’ll be dining with the rest of the household, if it suits you.”

I shrugged. “I’m fine with that.”

“Capital,” he said with a nod. “Next I’ll show you the other side of the house.”

The first room on the other side of the house was a living room, simply put. Three black leather couches and two armchairs were put in a circle, facing a big coffee table. It had a couple of ashtrays on top of it. I bet Tadaaki would approve of this place’s smoking policies, him being a smoker and all. The other side of the room held a black grand piano. The walls were covered by bookshelves and showcases.

“Here’s the living room, which is also used as a ballroom. Your work here includes basic cleaning and serving drinks,” Saitou explained.

So, not only am I going to be a domestic worker, but also a butler, too? Moving on through the living room, we ended up in a foyer of some kind.

“Here’s the house’s mudroom, which is mostly used by the staff. If you do any gardening work, always come inside through this door and clean your shoes here. This room also holds storage for gardening tools and a bathroom.”

Mudroom, huh? Resembles my own home’s foyer. Just as he said, the shelves in the room held a wide array of gardening tools of different kinds. The area surrounding the door was also quite muddy. We returned to the hall, where we took the stairs up to the catwalk, which led to yet another pair of doorways. We took the doorway on the right, which led to a hallway with three doors on each side, making it six in total.

“Here’s the master bedrooms, Kotobuki-sama’s study, two guest rooms, and the master bathroom. Please refrain from using it, since it’s meant for family members only. Save for the guest rooms, you can enter these rooms only with a permission. Understood?”

“Understood, yes,” I answered swiftly with a nod.

Quickly counting the doors and processing what he said about them, I guess it’s safe to say that this household includes both Kotobuki-san and his wife, and maybe a child. I wonder if I’ll get to meet them?

“Capital, let’s continue,” Saitou said.

We walked back to the catwalk, and headed through another doorway to the other part of the house. It also had six doors. Whoever designed this house must’ve cared a lot about symmetry. We were right next to a set of double doors, which Saitou opened.

“Here’s the house’s library. If you ever fancy reading, you can come here during your lunch break.”

Sure enough, the room’s walls were covered by a dozen bookshelves or so. A few armchairs were sitting in a row in front of the windows, and in the middle of the room was a small table with seat cushions around it. Man, I’ve got to check this out later.

Closing the library’s door, Saitou continued on his introduction: “There’s the common bathroom, which you’re allowed to use freely. Use the shower only if necessary.”

We moved on to the next door.

“Here’s the laundry room. I assume you can use a washing machine?”

I nodded for an answer.

“Obviously, your work here will include doing the laundry. The laundry will be dried using the clothes line outside whenever possible. Here you can also find some basic cleaning tools for other purposes.”

He pointed his hands towards the remaining doors. “These rooms are mine and my family members’, since we’re the Kotobuki household’s servants. As with the other bedrooms, you can enter these only with a permission.

Nodding for an answer, my mind began racing. God damn, they can afford to house their own servants! This Kotobuki-san never ceases to surprise me…

“Let’s move on to the yard,” Saitou said.

We were just about to turn around, until one of the doors opened. A girl stepped into the hallway. She had light hair, and a maid outfit. Not the kind you see in porn, but just a normal one. I’d guess she’s in junior high. Finally noticing my presence, she flinched a bit.

“Right, here’s my niece, Sumire. She’s also a servant in this household, and you’ll be working a lot together. Sumire, here’s our new summer worker, Sugimoto-san,” he introduced us.

This Sumire gal bowed respectfully. “Nice to meet you.”

I raised my hand for a greeting. “Yeah, you too.”

Clearly having no time to talk, she headed straight to the laundry room. I guess she had some work to do.

“…I’d just like to remind you that Kotobuki-sama has forbidden you from being too friendly with his daughter. However, on my behalf, you can socialize with Sumire, if you want to,” Saitou muttered, and coughed into his fist.

Hold on, a daughter? And what was that cough about? I felt like asking about something, but decided to just let it be, and just nodded for an answer. We kept standing in the hallway for a while.

“…shall we move on?” I asked.

“O-oh, right, of course. Right this way,” Saitou stuttered.

We walked the stairs down, and turned towards the door leading to the back yard. It held a big, white wooden patio, with a few tables and chairs here and there. The tables had parasols sticking out of them.

“Here’s the patio. The Kotobuki family likes to drink their tea here,” Saitou told me.

Yeah, no kidding. This place is nice. I’d drink tea here anytime. We walked around the yard for a minute or two, whilst Saitou gave me instructions and such. It wasn’t long until we arrived back at the starting point, that being the front door.

“Right, that should be everything. Do you have any questions at this point?” he asked me.

I slowly shook my head. “Nah, I think I got everything.”

“Capital. Now, follow me to the mudroom. Your work clothing should be waiting for you there,” he said, and we began walking once again.

Getting to the mudroom, Saitou opened one of the lockers, and pulled out some folded clothing. He handed them over to me.

“Here you go. You can change your clothes in the bathroom, and store your own clothes in this locker,” he instructed me.

I took the clothes, glanced at them, and headed to the bathroom to get changed. Couple of minutes later I returned, wearing my new work clothing. It consisted of a gray collar shirt with darker vest, light gray pants, and black shoes. You know what? I think it actually looks good on me.

Saitou nodded, and dug something out of his pocket. “Capital. Oh, and here, a key, so you don’t have to use the door buzzer every morning.”

I took the key, and slipped it into my pocket. “Alright, thanks. Actually, I’ve got a question. Are you guys from Europe? I mean the servants.”

“Oh, of course. We come from Austria,” he explained.

Ah, that would explain that Sumire gal and her light hair. Saitou, however, looks quite local. Maybe he has some Japanese blood? Whatever, better get started with my job instead of talking about family heritage.

I nodded. “Okay, just asking. So, where do I start?”

“Well, at first you could grab the vacuum cleaner and use it to clean the upstairs hallway. After that, you can clean the driveway. And when that’s done, come find me, and I’ll give you your next assignment.”

“Got it,” I said with a nod.

And so my first work day began. Doing different kinds of chores around the house wasn’t as nerve breaking nor difficult as I thought it would be. Actually, something about it was kinda relaxing. Am I going crazy, or am I just excited about being paid so much for doing such simple tasks? During the morning, I learnt about Kotobuki-san and his wife being on a business trip, and their daughter being somewhere with her friends for a few days. I guess I’ll meet the family itself sometime later.

Hours went by, and it was soon time for lunch. I’m not sure what I ate, probably something European, but it was damn good. I finished my lunch in just minutes, and carried the dishes over to the kitchen sink, where they waited for me to wash them. However, I had some free time now, so it can wait. Just as I had planned, I walked up to the second floor, and headed straight to the library. It was empty, which suited me just fine. I walked over to the shelves, scanning their contents. Lots of nonfiction books, and some fiction, too. I checked them out for a while, until I decided on a book about astronomy. Not sure why, it just seemed interesting enough. I carried the book over to the table, sat down, and began reading.

Few minutes passed by. I had already finished a couple of pages, when suddenly the door opened. It was the light haired maid, Sumire. I lowered the book on the table.

“Uh, something wrong?” I asked.

Seeming a bit confused and embarrassed, she began shaking her head. “Oh, no, not at all. I just thought about bringing you a drink, that’s all.”

Ah, she’s holding a serving tray in her hands, with a glass of juice on it.

“Oh? Okay, thanks, though you didn’t have to bother,” I muttered to Sumire, who was already setting the glass down on the table.

She bowed a bit, and was just about to leave, when I got an idea. “Hold on. Why don’t you stay for a while?”

“E-eh?” she muttered confusedly.

I nodded. “I just want to talk. I want to know a bit more about Kotobuki-san.”

“Uh, well…” she murmured, placing her finger on her lower lip, until she finally nodded. “…sure.”

She turned around to close the door, and walked over to the table, taking a seat across from me. Now that I got a closer look at her, I could see her blue eyes, highlighting her European blood even more. Her light hair was long and straight, and actually a bit messy. Well, I didn’t mind it, I actually think bed hair looks cute on girls.

“Uh, so, what did you want to talk about?” she asked me.

Oh, shit, I’ve just kept on staring at her face. “Oh, right. So, what can you tell me about Kotobuki-san? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m just curious, since I’m not going to meet him for a while.”

“Kotobuki-sama? Well… At times, he can be quite strict and rough, but he’s a businessman, so I guess that’s just his role. When he doesn’t have job pressures, he can actually be quite nice and relaxed. However, don’t get too friendly with him. Always remember to be polite and respectful. He’s your employer, after all,” she told me.

I was sarcastically counting my fingers as she talked. “…right, got it.”

I sipped my juice, and picked up my book.

“…uh, was that it?” she asked me after some awkward silence.

I raised my gaze from the book. “Yeah, pretty much.”

She seemed to flinch in confusion, which made me smirk a bit.

“…but you can stay if you want, I don’t mind,” I added.

“Oh, well, sure,” she muttered.

I kept on reading the book. I managed to finish a single paragraph, until I had a new question to ask.

“…so, what about you? You got any free time of your own?”

“Well, of course, whenever there’s not any work to do,” she answered.

“I see. But I guess you go to school, too.”

She nodded. “Yes, I go to a nearby junior high. I’m currently in the third grade.”

Nearby junior high, huh…? Wait, it couldn’t be…?

“Yukinokawa, right?” I asked, pointing at her with my finger.

After being confused for a while, she slowly nodded, seemingly surprised about my right guess.

I snickered a little, and sipped my drink. “I used to go there. It’s still a shithole, right?”

My rude language surprised her a bit, but a shy smile soon appeared on her face. “…yes, I guess you could call it that.”

I smiled at her a bit, and asked: “So, any idea what high school you’ll pick? Kasumimashita would be the closest one. I’m actually a student there.”

She shook her head. “No, I think I’ll be going to Sakuragaoka.”

“Oh? My sister goes to school there,” I noted.

She seemed to flinch a bit. “Y-your sister, too?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Too? So you also have a sister in Sakuragaoka?”

Sumire seemed to process her words a bit more carefully, until she began shaking her head. “O-oh, I-I mean, n-no. I don’t have a sister, I-I just fumbled with my words a bit…”

No, you didn’t. Why would you lie about having a sister? I decided to not press the issue any further. It’s her business, and I’d like to stay on her good side, since I had two weeks of work left. I resumed reading, talking with Sumire about some trivial stuff once in a while.

Soon my free time was over. I headed straight to the kitchen to do the dishes. After that, I got the task to do the laundry. The hours passed as I did some basic house chores. Too bad the job terms forbidden me from using headphones, because I’m sure some music would go well with the work. Oh well, can't have all the good stuff in life. There was one thing I didn’t get: why doesn’t the Kotobuki residence have a swimming pool? Or, well, maybe they’re so rich they could just book a flight to Hawaii whenever they feel like swimming or something. Shit, I still can’t believe I have an employer like that…

As I finished brushing all the leaves off the patio, I checked my watch. 4pm, time to clock out. I headed straight to the mudroom, where I returned the broom, and walked over to the locker to grab my clothes, heading to the bathroom. After getting changed and grabbing the key, I placed the work clothes back in the locker. As I did that, Saitou appeared in the mudroom.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san. Clocking out independently, I see. Capital.”

I nodded uncertainly. “Uh, yes. I hope it’s not a problem.”

“Oh, not at all. Independence is a positive trait when it comes to being a domestic worker,” he said, smiling a bit.

“If your work is always as diligent as it was today, I’ll be sure to mention it to Kotobuki-sama personally.”

“Right, thanks, I appreciate it. See you tomorrow,” I said, raising my hand for goodbye.

Stepping out of the door, walking back to the gate and getting to the street, I began walking back home. So, that was my first work day, huh? It was actually my first work day ever. It went better than I expected, though I’m not sure what exactly could go wrong. I’ve got to stop being so pessimistic all the time.

The sky was slowly turning orange when I finally got back to my house. I stepped through the door to the foyer, kicking my shoes off. The first thing I noticed was the pleasant smell coming from the kitchen, so I peeked there. Yup, just as I thought, mom was preparing dinner. And Ui was with her, too, helping with the vegetables. My two favorite cooks working together, I bet the food will taste amazing. Well, time to head up to my room, I feel like playing some video games.

…hold on…

I took a few steps backwards, peeking into the kitchen once again. And yes, it sure was Ui, who was chopping the vegetables, quietly humming to herself.

“…Ui-san?” I muttered confusedly.

She stopped chopping, and turned to face me. “Ah, Eiji-kun. How was your work day?”

“Uh, capita… I mean, good. Um, why are you there, anyway?”

She cocked her head, clearly confused.

“I mean, in my kitchen, preparing food,” I elaborated.

My mom leaned backwards a bit to get a look at me. “This girl here offered to help me with preparing the dinner, so that Tamiko could take Dash out for a walk.”

Processing the situation for a few seconds, I slowly nodded, and was just about to head back upstairs.

“Why haven’t you told about her?” mom asked.

I once again turned to face the kitchen. “…about whom?”

“About this Hirasawa-san, of course,” she explained.

…mom, why do you always have to make things difficult for me?

“Uh, I didn’t see a reason to do so,” I muttered after thinking for a bit.

Ui smiled. “I don’t mind it. Eiji-kun doesn’t have to talk about me if he doesn’t want to.”

Mom put her hand on her hip, taking a look at the both of us. “Is that so? You know, when your father was younger, he told the whole town about how he and I started dating.”

Ui stopped chopping immediately.

“We’re not dating!” we yelled in unison.

Mom got even more confused, until she began laughing gently. Still embarrassed a bit, Ui resumed chopping the vegetables.

“Sorry. I just assumed so since you’ve slept in her house, spent New Years Eve and Christmas there, and your birthday…” she listed.

Now just hold on a minute, how does she know about that? Unless… I slowly turned to face Ui.

“…did you tell her all that?”

“U-uh, well, yes… I hope you don’t mind,” she muttered, a bit embarrassed.

I felt like lecturing her. Just once, I wanted to be strict with her. But… Shit, something about that face just makes me forgive her instantly. I kept frowning at her for a while, until I slowly began smiling.

“…well, whatever.”

I began heading to the stairs. “Call me when the dinner’s ready, I’m going to play some games.”

“You could set the table first,” mom said from the kitchen.

Something about her tone made me instantly turn around. “…after I’ve set the table.”

I was in the middle of playing a game, when I heard a knock on the door, which soon opened. It was Ui.

“Dinner’s ready,” she announced.

“Wonderful,” I said, saved the game, and stood up.

We walked downstairs together, and headed to the dining table. For my misfortune, I saw my dad sitting at the table. Fuck, if that guy starts telling his shitty jokes, I’m moving to live with Tadaaki. Or with Ui, who knows. Mom was sitting next to him, and Tamiko across from them. We took a seat next to Tamiko, and without further ado began eating. I tried my best to avoid making eye contact with dad. He, however, soon talked to me.

“So, son…”

I quickly raised my gaze from the plate. “Y-yeah?”

“How did your work day go?” he asked.

“Oh, that? Just fine,” I muttered for an answer.

He just mumbled something approving, and resumed eating. Quietly sighing out of relief, I, too, got back to my food. A minute passed, until dad spoke again.

“So, who’s this Hirasawa girl?”

“W-who?”

“That one, who’s sitting next to you,” he elaborated, pointing at Ui with his chopsticks.

“Oh, her?” I took a quick glance at Ui. “She’s my friend.”

For some reason, dad laughed a bit. “I see.”

He didn’t seem to have anything more to say, so we continued on eating, which felt a bit awkward to me. Soon the table held nothing but empty plates. Man, what a meal.

“Thanks for the food,” I muttered under my breath as I brought the dishes over to the sink.

“Eiji-kun?” Ui called out for me.

I turned to look at her. She was also bringing her own dishes to the sink.

“Have you played Patricia lately?” she asked.

My parents, of course, got confused. I decided to ignore them.

“Well, a bit. Why?”

A shine of excitement could be seen in Ui’s eyes. “I’d like to see you play.”

I scratched my cheek. “You sure? I’m nowhere close to Azusa-san or your sister.”

“Don’t be so harsh on yourself,” she scolded me. “You’re good at playing guitar.”

Still thinking about it for a bit, I finally sighed, and shrugged. “Well, if you insist…”

I turned around and began heading to the stairs, Ui following right behind me. As I got to the stairs, I looked at the dining area from the corner of my eye. My parents were both looking at me, smiling warmly. Man, don’t get any wrong ideas… Or maybe I shouldn’t get any wrong ideas. Now that I was alone with Ui, that same nervous feeling began seeping in. As I was sitting on my room’s floor, holding Patricia in my hands, and playing a song, Ui being my only audience, thoughts began racing in my mind. As I earlier said, it’s not the normal kind of nervousness, no. I wasn’t scared, why would I be scared of Ui? No, it was something else…


…do I like her?

Chapter Text

The next day I was once again walking to my workplace. Another day, another yen, as my dad would say. I walked up the hill to the house, opened the gate with my key, and stepped to the yard. I headed straight to the mudroom to get changed into my work clothing, after which I walked over to the lobby to look for Saitou. I mean, yeah, I found Saitou. Not the old man, though, but the young servant girl, Saitou Sumire. Almost as if she’s been expecting me.

“Ah, there you are. Good morning,” she greeted me, bowing respectfully.

“Oh, yeah, morning,” I said, answering the gesture. “Where’s your uncle?”

“Ah, he’s out doing some errands, so I’ll be your supervisor this morning.”

Getting supervised by a gal clearly younger than me, huh… Better swallow my pride, even though the thought doesn’t taste so good.

After thinking about it for a bit, I nodded. “Okay, sure. So, any tasks for me?”

“Actually, yes. Today is laundry day. Follow me up to the laundry room, and I’ll show you the procedures,” she instructed me, and began heading towards the stairs, me tailing right after her.

I spent my morning doing the laundry. Dirty ones in, clean ones out to dry, pretty simple. And while waiting for the wash cycle to be complete, I decided to grab the vacuum cleaner and clean the upstairs hallway. At first I did it just to earn some extra points, but after a few minutes it began feeling relaxing, just like yesterday. When the cycle was done, I carried the laundry over to the clothesline outside where I hung them up to dry. Now I only had to find something else to do while I waited for the clothes to dry, and… Hold on, this isn’t me. I’m beginning to lose myself. Maybe I’ll just head over to the mudroom to relax a bit…

“Oh, you’re already done, great.”

I’m not sure where Sumire appeared from, but her talking caught me completely off guard. I somehow managed not to flinch.

“A-ah, yeah,” I muttered, trying to hide my nervousness.

Sumire smiled a bit. “And good job on cleaning the upstairs hallway. Speaking of which, the rugs up there could use some airing. You can hang them on the patio’s railings. Oh, and get a carpet beater, so you can dust them a bit.”

Her tone of voice… Almost if she knew I was thinking about slacking off. Better be more careful with my thoughts. As instructed, I headed upstairs, rolled up the rugs covering the hallway’s floor, and carried them out to the patio, where I laid them down on the railing. After a bit of searching, I managed to find the carpet beater. I used it to give the rugs the beating their dads never gave them. The hours passed as I did a few more tasks, and it was already lunch time. I still wasn’t sure what I ate, but I think it was some kind of a fish or something. After finishing my meal and returning the dishes to the sink, I headed upstairs towards the library. As I got to the hallway, I spotted Sumire a bit further away, next to what I assumed to be her room’s door.

Noticing my presence, she asked: “Oh, you’re going to the library again?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “There’s not much else to do here.”

Sumire seemed to think about something for a bit. As I was reaching for the library’s door, she suddenly spoke.

“Would you like to come into my room?”

It caught me completely off guard. “A what now?”

Sumire processed her words for a few seconds, until she flinched. “A-ah, no, I mean… The library doesn’t really have anything for teenagers, and I have some manga and light novels, so…”

I tried my best to hide my grin as she embarrassedly explained her true intentions. She’s all professional and ladylike when she’s being a servant, but behind all that she’s just a normal girl. Obviously, she’s just offering me more suitable reading, nothing else. Actually, I wouldn’t mind checking out some light novels.

“Alright, sounds good,” I said, pretending to not have noticed her embarrassment.

It took her some seconds to react. “…oh! Um, come on in, then.”

I walked over to her, and she opened the room’s door, waiting for me to step in first. As I did that, I wasn’t very surprised about the room itself. A bed, wardrobe, desk, bookshelf, and a pinch of femininity here and there… Just a regular girl’s room, or as far as I know, at least. Only abnormal thing was a mini fridge under the desk. Man, I’ve always wanted one of those, would save me a trip to the kitchen.

“Sorry for the lack of seating, you can sit on the bed,” Sumire said, a bit sorry looking, before also stepping inside and closing the door.

As instructed, I walked over to the bed, taking a seat on its edge. Right across from it was a bookshelf. And sure enough, it indeed held a wide array of manga and light novels of different kinds, enough to fill many rows. One wouldn’t expect a servant girl to own such a collection, but as I stated earlier, her profession hardly defines her nature. As I was eyeing the shelf, Sumire walked through the room, pulled out a chair from under the desk, and took a seat.

“Pick anything you like,” she told me.

I nodded for an answer, and kept eyeing the shelf for a while, until I stood up, and walked over to it. I began browsing the collection more closely. Alright, let’s see here… Nope… No… Nah… Ugh, it’s all so bland! School romances, junior high students with super powers fighting each other, a fantasy world catgirl café… I mean, she’s not wrong when she said these would be more suitable for teenagers. Teenage girls going to junior high, that is. A drop of cold sweat ran down my brow as I was trying to figure out how I’d tell her that her whole shelf was full of shit… Wait a minute, that’s… That’s Warriors of Lotus, the very first volume! It was tucked away on the lowermost shelf, almost as if trying to be hidden. Well, a bit of rereading wouldn’t do me any harm, so I ended up picking it.

Sumire seemed a bit surprised due to my choice. “Uh, you’re going to read that?”

“Yup,” I nodded, sitting back on the bed. “Or, actually, I’ve read it once before.”

“Oh? I got it as a present some time ago, but it seemed so bland I never bothered even opening it,” she muttered.

You’re the one to speak with your bookshelf full of blandness, gal… Actually, back when I got my own copy, I thought exactly that about it. And I guess I would’ve never even touched it if it wasn’t for that one day when the internet went out, and I was in dire need of some entertainment. I flipped the book open, and began reading. From the corner of my eye, I saw Sumire picking some light novel from the shelf. We spent the next minutes just reading in silence.

As I was reading, I switched positions from time to time, and ended up laying on my stomach. Me being focused on the text and one of my hands holding the book, my other hand began moving around, and found a gap between the bed and the wall. The gap was big enough for my hand to fit through, and it wasn’t long until my fingers reached the floor… No, wait, that’s not the floor. It feels like… a cardboard box? Fiddling around with it a bit, I determined for it to be a shoebox or similar. Now, why would a teenage girl have a box hidden under her bed? It caught my interest. Maybe, with enough force, I could slip it out from under the bed. Though, I could also just—

“H-hey!” Sumire suddenly yelled out.

I immediately stopped from fiddling with the box, but didn’t pull my hand out of the gap. Instead, I acted surprised, and turned to face her.

“Huh, what’s up?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

She kept quiet for a while, confused a bit. She quickly realized she was just making herself look suspicious, and was desperately scanning around the room, looking for an excuse. A few seconds later she suddenly reached for the mini fridge.

“U-um, would you like something to drink?”

“…sure, why not,” I said with a shrug.

She opened the fridge, grabbing two small boxes of juice, and handed one of them over to me. First I’m invading her privacy by fiddling with that box, and now I’m drinking a juice I don’t deserve… I guess I should feel bad, but a free juice is always a free juice. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what’s in that box. Drugs? Weapons? A vibrating massage tool that’s definitely used only on the neck? Though, invading her privacy might get me fired… Ugh, I’ll figure it out later.

Hours passed, and my shift was almost over. I was working on the front yard, raking the leaves and such, when I saw an expensive looking car driving to the yard, and parking in the garage. As the driver stepped out of the garage, I recognized him as Saitou. Huh, he’s been gone all day. From what I’ve heard, even though he’s a butler, he also handles some business stuff for Kotobuki-san. He spotted me, and immediately walked over to me.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san. I have an important task for you,” he told me.

Thinking for a bit, I raised the rake in my hand. “Um, I’m kinda in the middle of something here.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ll have someone finish it up for you,” he said with a slight smile. “Get your shoes cleaned and come to the kitchen, and I’ll explain the task.”

So the task’s that important, huh? Well, better not keep him waiting. Stopping by the mudroom to clean my shoes, I immediately headed to the kitchen, where I found Saitou standing next to the sink. And on top of the sink was a fancy looking tea set.

“So, let me explain: the family’s daughter will be arriving home this evening. And this is her favorite tea set,” he explained.

I quickly got what my task would be; “Ah, you want it cleaned?”

Saitou nodded with a satisfied smile. “Yes, exactly. Capital.” However, he became a bit more serious. “I’d like for you to be extremely gentle with these. They’re custom work from Austria.”

“…oh?” I managed to mutter out.

He kept the serious expression on for some seconds, until that same slight smile returned. “Well, I’m sure you’ll manage. When you’re done, you’re free to leave.”

And then he left, leaving me by myself. I kept staring at the tea set for a while, until I swallowed nervously, and began digging around the cabinets, gathering some cleaning equipment. If I fuck this up, I’ll have to work as their slave for some decades until I’ve repaid the damage.

Half an hour later I finally got home. I managed to clean the tea set without breaking a single thing, hooray for me. As I stepped inside and began taking my shoes off, I noticed something: Two familiar pairs of shoes.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Tamiko peeking from the kitchen. “Ah, welcome home.”

Right next to her was Ui. “Hey, Eiji-kun!”

“Oh, Eiji-kun’s home?” I could hear Jun shouting from the living room.

A bit confused, I scratched my head. “Oh, hi. We’re having visitors again?”

As I slowly walked further, I noticed that the two girls in the kitchen were preparing some tea and snacks.

“Yes, again,” Ui answered, chuckling embarrassedly. “My parents came home this morning, and they brought a lot of foreign snacks as souvenirs for sis and me, so I thought about sharing them.”

Wait, your parents? So you do actually have parents? And they’re currently at your home? Just like that? Just chilling there?

“Huh…” I muttered in the midst of the thoughts racing in my head.

Taking a few steps more, I saw Jun in the living room, lazing around on the couch. I don’t think the tea will take that long to be ready, so I might as well stay downstairs. I walked over to the couches, crashing on the vacant one, and spent my time staring at the ceiling. Huh, I can’t actually remember the last time I’ve stared at the living room’s ceiling. Actually, I think I’ve stared more at Ui’s living room’s ceiling than at this one. I glanced at Jun, and noticed her doing the same. As I looked at her, something came to my mind.

“Where’s the cat girl?”

Jun turned to look at me with an amused snort. “Ah, you mean Azusa? I think she’s currently on a trip with her club.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I murmured, having completely forgotten about it.

Ui peeked from the kitchen. “Actually, they’re currently on their way back home, and should arrive later today.”

“Huh, what a coincidence…” I muttered after remembering the Kotobuki family’s daughter. After seeing the girls’ confused expressions, I waved my hand vaguely. “Nothing, just talking to myself.”

Indeed, tomorrow I’d meet the daughter. I wonder what she’s like? Heh, probably some stuck up bitch or something. Oh well, better keep my head cool and stay polite, no matter how annoying she’d get.

The next morning came sooner than I expected. Just like before, I got through the gate, headed to the mudroom to get changed, and headed to the lobby to look for Saitou. But no one was there. Should I stay and wait? Or would it be seen as being lazy? Maybe I should grab a feather duster and make myself look busy… Oh, wait, there’s Sumire. She walked in through the door leading to the backyard. And as she noticed my presence, she quickly walked over to me.

“Morning,” I greeted her, and a second later remembered to bow.

“Good morning,” she greeted back, answering the gesture. “I actually have something for you to do right away.”

She then beckoned me to follow her, so that’s what I did. She led me to the kitchen, where I saw a serving tray with a tea set. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.

“So, uh, I’m supposed to serve tea?” I made a guess.

Sumire nodded. “That’s right.”

“To whom?” I asked, even though I already knew, since I cleaned that same tea set myself yesterday.

“To Kotobuki-sama’s daughter,” she answered. “She’s currently on the patio. Don’t keep her waiting, and remember to be polite and professional.”

Polite and professional, right, sure… I felt like asking something, but Sumire was already gone, leaving me by myself. Nervously glaring at the serving tray, I let out a deep sigh, and grabbed it. The walk from the kitchen to the patio felt heavy. I mean, the tray wasn’t heavy at all. It was the price of the tea set that was heavy. Thankfully, Sumire had left the patio’s door open, so I could just walk through without breaking my pace. The bright forenoon sun blinded me for a second, the backyard slowly fading into my vision. The daughter didn’t seem to be sitting on the right side. Slowly and nervously, I turned my head to the left. And there she was, sitting at one of the tables. Light hair, blue eyes, and a white sundress…

Wait just a damn minute.

I recognized her. I knew her. And judging by her expression, she also knew me. She’s Tsumugi, Yui’s club’s keyboardist. I… Fuck, I just thought the same last name was a coincidence! No way in hell would’ve I expected for her to be some millionaire’s daughter! Damn it, I’m going to have a mental breakdown over here!

She kept looking at me, a small but warm smile on her face, almost as if she’s waiting for something… Oh, shit, I’m supposed to serve tea to her. I took a second to quickly get a grip, and walked over to her, gently setting the tray on the table. I took another second to brace myself for what I was about to say.

“Your tea, Miss Kotobuki,” I said as professionally as I could.

“Why, thank you,” she said, cocking her head with a smile. “Though, a servant is supposed to pour it for me.”

My heart skipped a beat. “A-a-ah, r-right, o-of course, I just—!”

She interrupted me by gently giggling into her hand. “Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ll later ask for Sumire to show you how to do it.”

It took some seconds for my panic to ease off. “…right, thanks.”

I was just about to head back inside, when Tsumugi asked: “Actually, why don’t you sit down? It won’t take long for me to finish this tea.”

I, however, just kept standing, not even turning to face her. As seconds passed, I nervously cleared my throat.

“I… I’m not supposed to be too friendly with you,” I said to her under my breath.

“Oh?” she muttered, and soon smiled gently. “But we’re already friends, aren’t we, Eiji-san?”

We are? Or, I guess we are, since we’re on a first-name basis.

“…good point.”

After hesitating for a few seconds more, I finally turned to face her, pulling out a chair right across from her, and taking a seat. Satisfied with her successful persuasion, Tsumugi poured herself a cup of tea, and began drinking it. Meanwhile I was just sitting there, glancing around the backyard, a small bit of nervousness still lingering in my mind.

“So…” Tsumugi spoke, and I quickly turned to face her. “How have you liked your time here so far?”

Man, tough question, this is only my third day here.

I thought about it for a bit. “…well, honestly speaking, I can’t really name anything that would’ve been wrong. It’s actually been kinda easy and relaxing.”

She nodded for an answer, sipped her tea, and asked: “I assume Sumire has kept you company?”

“Uh, yes,” I answered, a bit confused.

Tsumugi snorted amusedly. “I thought as much. We’ve had a few other part-time employees during the past years, but they’ve all been college students or butler trainees. This year my father thought about employing a high schooler for a change.”

She set her tea cup down, hinting she had more to say. “Do you know why you’re here?”

Now what kind of a question is that? Is this some trick? Eh, guess I’ll bite for now.

“Uh, because of my summer job?”

“Because of whom?” she asked.

Seriously, what the hell? “Because of… your father, right?”

She didn’t say anything, but just kept looking at me, that same smile still on her face. Huh, was I wrong? Wait… No, it can’t be… But, why else would she ask those questions? She can’t possibly mean…?

It took me a few seconds to figure it out. “…you?”

She chuckled a bit. “You know, there were many other applicants besides you, but I managed to convince my father to pick you.”

“…wha…?” was the only thing I managed to blurt out in the midst of my confusion.

As I was busy trying to make sense out of all of this, she continued: “Last spring, I happened to stop by my father’s study one day. He was going through the summer job applications, so, out of curiosity, I also took a peek at them. To my complete surprise, I happened to recognize your name in one of them. My father, having difficulties choosing between three applications, asked me to pick one randomly. And so, I ‘randomly’ picked you.”

This… I mean… Just, what!?

“…why?” I managed to ask after a bit of processing.

“Why not?” she said, cocking her head with a smile. “You’re a good person, at least according to Ui-chan.”

Now it was my turn to cock my head, this time out of confusion. “According to Ui-san?

“Oh, yes. We meet from time to time, and most of the time she has something to tell about you,” she explained. “And I can tell she really enjoys your company.”

“That so…?” I muttered, feeling a slight blush forming on my cheeks. “So, uh, what does she tell about me?”

Tsumugi put her fingers on her cheeks. “My, my. Interested, aren’t we?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake, could you stop making me more embarrassed!? Regardless, I tried my best to keep my cool.

“I don’t like when people talk about me behind my back.”

It was a lie. Honestly, I don’t give a shit about something like that. But, for some reason, she had managed to pique my interest, so I was a bit curious.

She still kept the smile on her face. “Well, let’s see: She says that you’re nice, patient, a good friend, a great listener, and that it’s fun to talk with you. Oh, and she also praises your interest towards literature.”

…Ui just doesn’t know when to shut up, does she?

“I, uh, see,” I said, nodding slowly.

Something about it amused Tsumugi. She grabbed her tea cup, took a sip, and set it back down.

“Now, your turn,” she said.

“What?”

“What do you think about Ui-chan?” she elaborated.

I frowned a bit. “Why do you ca—… I mean, why you ask?”

“Oh, just interested, that’s all,” she explained, resting her chin on her fingers. “I’ve heard so much about you, but not so much from you.”

I looked at her for a while, and turned my gaze elsewhere, scratching my cheek. Well, maybe I can talk a bit more openly with her. We know each other well enough to be considered friends, but not so much that she’d be able to make fun of me.

“…you know, I’m not really sure how to answer that,” I answered honestly.

It seemed to surprise Tsumugi. “Oh? I thought you’d just say that you two are friends.”

…fuck it, I’ll just let her be my therapist for a minute. “Yeah, well, I guess it’s not that simple, you know.”

I gave her a quick glance, noticing her interested expression.

“It just doesn’t feel like friendship anymore.”

“Maybe something greater?” she asked, complementing my thoughts.

After thinking for a second, I nodded. “…yeah, I guess you can put it that way. But, I’m not sure if you could talk about anything ‘serious’ just yet. It’s like in between two feelings. Like I’m stuck in a gap; it’s hard to keep going forward, but it’s also hard to go back where I came from… if that makes sense.”

Tsumugi kept listening to me, her smile getting a bit wider. “Well, then… let me ask you a simple question.”

I gave her all of my attention.

“Do you like Ui-chan?”

“Uh, in what wa—?”

She quickly raised her hand to interrupt me, and shook her head. The smile was gone, she actually looked serious. “Simple question, no elaborations. Just answer, yes or no?”

“…yeah.”

And just like that, the smile was back on her face, like nothing happened.

“Then, I’m sure you’ll eventually find your way out of the gap,” she told me.

I thought I’d lose my sanity. I thought I couldn’t say anything out of nervousness. But, I just blurted it out. Just like that, without a second doubt, without regret. And… I actually feel a bit relieved. I think this was exactly what I needed, just someone to talk to. As I was processing the situation, Tsumugi finished her tea. The sound of the tea cup clinking against the saucer made me wake from my thoughts.

“Thanks for the tea.”

“…oh, right, sure,” I muttered, standing up and grabbing the platter

It caused Tsumugi to giggle into her hand. “You’re not supposed to answer that.”

…and there goes my confidence down the drain once again.

Couple of days went by, and it was already Friday. Only next week left, and my summer job will be over. Besides Sumire, Tsumugi has also kept me company during those couple of days, though I always try to make our conversations brief, since I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression to my employer. During those short conversations, I’ve come to learn that she takes the same train as my sister whenever she goes to school, though they hardly talk much, save for some casual greetings. I also heard something rather surprising; I’ve attracted some attention at the Sakuragaoka High School. Some students there have seen me hanging out with the Hirasawa sisters, and thus the rumors have started to spread. I’m not sure how to feel about that, since I’m planning on visiting their festival again later this year… Eh, I guess we’ll see.

Before I knew it, my work day was over. After having a quick discussion about my progress and work quality with Saitou, I was free to leave. I’m not sure what I’m going to do this weekend, I don’t really have any plans. I guess I could spend the rest of the day eating snacks and playing games. Luckily, I had a bit of money with me, so I could stop by the store on my way home. A bag of chips, soda, maybe something microwaveable… There, I think I’ll manage with these. I stepped out of the convenience store, and began heading home.

“Yo, Sugimoto.”

I halted. The sound wasn’t familiar, but since it was calling my name, I decided to turn around to face it. A few meters away, at the convenience store’s corner, stood a guy, leaning against the wall. It took me a few seconds to recognize him. It was Tsukuda, the guy who was fighting Ichiro back at the Winter Festival. I looked at him for a couple of seconds, turned my gaze away from him, and resumed walking.

“Hey, what’s the hurry?” he called out for me.

I halted again, but I didn’t face him.

“The hell do you want?” I asked.

I could hear him walking a few steps towards me. “I just wanna talk.”

“I don’t have anything to say to you.”

I heard him clicking his tongue, and sighing right after. “Man, why all the hostility?”

I was beginning to get annoyed. The reason for my reluctance was my survival instinct: No way I’m going to stop and talk with a guy I beat up half a year ago. For all I know, the second I turn to face him, I’ll get a punch to the face.

It was quiet for a few seconds, until I could hear him sigh again. “Alright, look, dude. There’s a security camera right up there, and we’re next to a busy road. Why the fuck would I fight in a place like this?”

…honestly, he made a good point.

“…and besides, if I wanted to beat you up, I would’ve already done it.”

I thought about it for a bit. Taking a deep breath, I once again turned around to face him.

“…okay. What’s up?”

A pleased grin on his face, he walked back to the wall, and squatted down in front of it. I decided to follow his example, and also squatted down next to the wall, but kept a two meter distance to him.

“Well, that would be my line. What’s up with you?” he asked.

“The hell you mean?”

He chuckled a bit. “That psychopath from Yukinokawa. That’s what my buddies call you.”

I just glanced at him, but didn’t say anything. He kept waiting for my answer, but when he realized I wouldn’t give any, he decided to continue.

“I’m from the western part of town, so I didn’t have the pleasure to go to the same junior high as this so-called ‘psychopath’. I didn’t even know about your existence until last winter, when I got a taste of your fist. Everyone seemed to know you, everyone else except for me. So, of course I got curious. Why the fuck haven’t I ever heard of this ‘psychopath’ before?”

He turned to face me, a curious expression on his face. “From what I’ve heard, you used to be one angry little bastard. Even one wrong word, and a guy would get his ass beaten up by you.”

I frowned a bit. “Yeah, so what of it? You’re not one to moralize me.”

“No, I’m not moralizing anyone here. It’s just that all I hear is you doing this and that in junior high…” he said, and turned to face me. “…but not a single thing in high school.”

I glanced at him, not saying anything, and turned my gaze back to the road, watching the cars driving by.

He snapped his fingers, and shook his head. “A person doesn’t just change like that in one spring break. What made you go soft? Parents? Religion? Who the hell are you trying to impress here?”

Unamused, I slowly turned to face him. “People do change.”

“The hell they do…” he muttered, clicking his tongue.

He then stayed quiet for a while. I was just thinking about making my leave, when he continued on talking.

“…but anyway, back to my original question. I know about pretty boy Nishikawa and that little bitch Makino.”

My grip on the plastic bag tightened as I listened to him talking shit, but I tried my best to keep calm. Yeah, I wanted to slam his head against the wall, but as he earlier stated, this place is not optimal for fighting.

“One has a dead mom, and the other one has daddy issues. You know, just your basic sad shit that people use to justify their delinquency,” he said, making vague movements with his hand as he explained. “But you? What’s up with you?”

I’m not sure where he had got that information about my friends. Regardless, I guess his curiosity about me was understandable. I live with both of my parents, and I have a good relationship with them. So, why would I feel the need to disrespect the rules of society?

“I guess I just don’t like assholes,” I muttered, keeping my gaze forward.

He chuckled, and leaned towards me, whispering: “That’s it!” His whisper sounded excited, as if he found the answer he was looking for.

“That’s fucking it, you just don’t like assholes! Unlike every other dickhead out there, it’s not your environment that makes you do what you do,” he said, swiping the air with his hand.

He then turned to face me, and pointed his finger at his head like a gun. “It’s in your nature.

His eyes… They were the ones of a madman. I remember seeing those same, crazed eyes back at the Winter Festival when I fought him. Those eyes were accompanied by that manic laughter. I wasn’t sure about it back then, but now I’m certain of it: This guy is attracted to violence. In an unhealthy way, that is.

He dragged himself a bit closer to me, a grin on his face and his eyes wide open. “You realize? We’re the same, you and I. We don’t fight because the world is unfair. We fight because we want.”

…enough.

I stood up, and turned to glare at him.

“We are not the same.”

I then began walking away. As I did that, I could hear Tsukuda chuckling, but he didn’t say anything. My heart was pumping, I was clenching my fist in my pocket. Yes, I admit it, I was a total degenerate piece-of-shit back in junior high, but unlike Tsukuda, I’m not mentally ill. I fought only because I was angry. I was angry for so many years, but not anymore. But… Tsukuda almost got one thing right. I ‘went soft’ thanks to someone. Thanks to a certain gal.

A gal… that I like.

Chapter Text

“…Eiji-ku—”

I flinched awake, quickly sitting up. “No, wait!”

“E-eh!?”

…huh? Where did the green light orb go? I was just about to catch it… Wait, whose voice was that, anyway? I slowly turned to look at my side, and found Ui, scared shitless. I kept looking at her with tired eyes for, uh, I’m not even sure how long.

As she finally recovered from the scare, she spoke again: “…uh, Eiji-kun?”

“H-huh? What?” I managed to murmur as I was rubbing the sleep out of my eye.

Ui smiled nervously. “Good morning.”

“Oh, right. Morning…” I muttered.

Her smile disappeared as she became a bit concerned, and leaned towards me. “Did you have a bad dream?”

I cocked my head, trying to remember. “…not sure.”

She seemed to think about something, but didn’t voice her thoughts. Instead, she turned around, and walked to the door.

“Come downstairs when you’re ready, we’re making some breakfast.”

“Yeah, cool,” I said to her, followed by a big yawn.

I could hear her giggling a bit before stepping out of my room and closing the door.

…wait a damn minute. Now that I’m completely awake, this indeed is my room. So why’s Ui here? Did Tamiko invite her over again? Oh well, she said something about breakfast. If it’s made by Ui, it’ll suit me just fine. Oh, right, it’s Monday, I’ll have to go back to work today. After stretching for a bit, I walked over to my computer table to check my phone. Ui had woken me up just minutes before my alarm, which I immediately turned off. I also took a glance at my computer. The only reason I got the job was to get that computer a new processor and more RAM. I got dressed up, stopped by the bathroom, and headed downstairs. And indeed, they sure were preparing some breakfast, judging by the pleasant smell.

As I walked over to the kitchen, I glanced at the living room. I saw Dash lying in the middle of the floor, and Yui lying next to her. It made me halt, and after being confused for a bit, I walked over to the two lazy ladies. As I approached them, Dash just raised her head to get a look at me, and got back to lazing around just as quickly. Meanwhile, Yui was lying next to her, her eyes shut… Wait, is she sleeping?

I kept looking at her goofy, sleeping face for a while, until I turned to face the kitchen. “Uh, just why exactly is Yui-san sleeping on our floor?”

“Huh, sleeping?” I could hear Ui muttering, and saw her peeking into the living room, a spatula in her hand and an apron around her waist. As she got a look at the scenario, she got angry. “Sis! Wake up, you can’t sleep here!”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Yui squirming on the floor. “But Ui~, I’m still tired…”

I knew exactly what Ui was about to say next, so before she had the chance to do that, I crouched down, poking Yui on the cheek. I wanted to give her a succinct warning.

“No snack,” I whispered to her.

The very next second, Yui suddenly jerked awake, making me throw myself backward. “I-I’m awake! I was just, uh, keeping the dog company!”

Hearing this, Dash raised her left ear and let out a snort, almost as if saying ‘The hell you were’. It made me grin out of amusement. However, I still hadn’t gotten the answer for my question.

I stood up, stretching my legs a bit. “So, I’ll ask again: Why are you guys here?”

Yui, who was trying to hide her tired yawn, turned to face me. “Ah, our parents are going on another trip tomorrow, so they’re trying to change their sleep schedule.”

Wait, what? You mean, they came back home only for a week, and are already leaving? Has it always been like this? Man, no wonder I haven’t ever met them. But, do I really want to meet them, though? Well, maybe some other time. Raising an eyebrow, I turned to look at Ui, who nodded in agreement.

“That’s right. We came to visit so that we wouldn’t disturb their sleep.”

Understanding the situation a bit, I looked down at Yui, who was just staring at a wall with tired eyes. “…though you still disturbed someone’s sleep…” I muttered under my breath.

“Ah, Ui-chan, I think these are just about ready!” I heard my sister’s voice from the kitchen, where Ui quickly returned to. I was just about to ask about what they were cooking, when Tamiko peeked from the kitchen. “Eiji-chan, would you please be so kind and set the table?”

“Huh? Oh, uh, sure.”

I walked over to the kitchen to get some plates and what-not, when I finally saw what the girls were preparing: pancakes. A big stack of them. With whipped cream and berries on the side. As Ui saw me just staring at the huge pancake stack in awe, she smiled, embarrassed a bit.

“We didn’t really have time to eat at home, so…”

Slowly nodding for an answer, I finally began digging around the cupboards for dishes. Ui, however, still kept her eyes on me. When I again turned to look at her, she cocked her head, a bit sorry looking.

“Sorry for coming over so early, and for all the ruckus,” she apologized.

I just snorted with a smirk, and continued on gathering the dishes. “Yeah, well, I don’t mind. A free breakfast is always welcome. Also, I’ve caused a lot of ruckus in your house during the past few years, so this is a nice change of pace, I guess. And besides, it’s not like you’re actually bothering anyo—”

The sound of a door opening upstairs made me fall quiet. It was followed by some heavy footsteps, which soon got to the stairs. Swallowing nervously, I glanced towards the stairs, seeing my tired dad moseying down them, wearing a loosely tied dressing gown. Fuck, it’s hard to wake that guy up from his sleep, but when you manage to do it, he’s not very pleased about it. And sure enough, he didn’t look too pleased. I wouldn’t either if I worked night shifts and suddenly woke up after just a few hours of sleep. Scratching his armpit, he scanned around the downstairs area, having a small staring contest with a rather confused Yui, until his tired and annoyed eyes reached me.

“…uh, morning, dad,” I said nervously.

He just glared at me. I’m sure he wanted to yell at me, but since Yui was there, he probably didn’t dare to do it. Instead, he just grunted quietly.

“What’s all this commotion about?”

Man, what excuse would get me out of this trouble? “W-well, you see—”

“Ah, Mr. Sugimoto. Good morning.”

My sentence was cut off by Ui’s sudden greeting. She had stepped out of the kitchen’s other doorway, and was facing my dad. Actually, she was bowing respectfully to him.

It took my dad by surprise, his annoyance having turned into a slight confusion. “Oh, it’s you. Morning.”

Having gotten his attention, Ui put on a sorry smile. “I’m so sorry for waking you up. You see, we’re making some breakfast. But, I guess we got a bit carried away, and completely forgot about keeping the volume down.” She then turned her gaze downwards sheepishly. “We originally came here so that we wouldn’t wake up our parents, but in the end, we ended up waking someone else’s parent. So, please, forgive us.”

…man, if that doesn’t manage to calm my dad down, then nothing will, and I’ll have to put him down. I looked over at him, and sure enough, all the annoyance had vanished from his eyes. Actually, I could swear he was looking a bit embarrassed. Holy shit, now I know who to contact if I ever manage to anger my parents…

Now it was Tamiko’s turn to speak to dad: “We’re making pancakes. There’s a whole lot of them, so I could put some aside, if you want to eat them later.”

“Pancakes, huh…?” he muttered to himself, thought about something for a while, and slowly started heading towards the dining area. “…actually, I wouldn’t mind having a small snack.”

As he walked past Yui, who was still just sitting there in pure confusion, he took a better look at me, and noticed the dishes in my hands. “Set up a plate for me, too, son.”

“…oh, uh, okay, sure,” I muttered, still a bit dumbstruck due to the whole scenario, and dug out one more plate from the cabinet.

The breakfast was, well, unique, to say the least, if a bit awkward. Regardless, the pancakes were tasty, and my dad headed straight back to sleep after wolfing down a serving twice the size of mine. After finishing the meal, it was time for me to head to work. Just this week left, and I’ll receive a fat paycheck, assuming nothing goes wrong. So far I’ve done all the work I’ve been assigned to, and then some. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be so worried about it, but some carefulness wouldn’t do me any harm.

Soon I arrived at the Kotobuki residence, right on time as usual. I headed inside, got changed into my work clothing, and headed back outside, walking to the garage. Last Friday, Saitou told me that I should now be able to handle things on my own, so I wouldn’t need to ask for assignments anymore. Of course, if someone asks me to do something, especially a family member, I should always prioritize that first. But right now I didn’t have anything on my to-do list, so I did what I’ve been longing to do for a whole week: wash the cars. It’s a great excuse for me to admire them up close. And man, they sure were something.

After getting the cars shiny and spending another minute just looking at them, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and headed back towards the house. However, as I was walking, I spotted Tsumugi stepping out of the house.

“Morning, Miss Kotobuki,” I greeted her as I got closer.

“Ah, Eiji-san. Would you mind coming with me for a bit? I think I might need your help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh, sure thing, but where?”

“Downtown, I’ll explain on the way,” she said, and when she noticed my unsure expression, she added: “Don’t worry, since you’re with me, it’ll count as work.”

…well, since she’s a family member, I guess it’s fine. “Alright, then. Lead the way.”

And so we began walking towards the train station, where we boarded a train, and were on our way to the downtown area. Midway through, I realized I was wearing my work clothing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with them, but I felt like my fancy clothes stood out like a sore thumb. One train ride later, we were walking down the street, towards… Wait, where are we even going?

“So, uh, why am I supposed to do?” I asked Tsumugi.

She actually seemed surprised about my question. “Oh? Well, nothing comes to my mind.”

“…so why am I even here?” I muttered, unamused.

She just shrugged, and smiled. “I’m sure we’ll find something for you to do.”

Great, she doesn’t even have anything for me to do, she just took me along just for the hell of it. But, she said it counts as work, so maybe I should be glad about getting paid for slacking off.

We kept walking in silence for a minute more, until she spoke again: “So, have you seen Ui-chan lately?”

The question made me almost choke, but I tried my best to keep calm. “Yeah. Actually, just this morning. She came over to make some breakfast.”

“Oh, my,” Tsumugi muttered surprisedly, a small blush forming on her cheeks. “I didn’t know you two were that close.”

Frowning, I quickly turned my head the other way. “It’s not what you think. My sister just invited her over, that’s all.”

She chuckled quietly to herself. “Ah, of course.” It sounded sarcastic, but I didn’t care to comment on it, since she’d probably just tease me more.

We continued on walking, and Tsumugi led me to the mall. As we took the escalator down to the basement floor, I quickly figured out where we were going. And sure enough, we headed to the music store. We didn’t have to stay there for too long. Tsumugi headed straight to the register and spoke to the cashier, who dug up a big looking rectangular bag from under the counter, handing it over to her. Tsumugi then returned back to me, and handed the bag over.

“Here, would you mind carrying this?”

“Ah, sure,” I nodded, receiving the bag. God damn, it was heavier than what Tsumugi led me to believe. “What’s in this, anyway?”

“My keyboard. It’s had some annoying static noise lately, so I had it repaired,” she explained.

“I see…” I muttered, and shouldered the bag. As I did that, I realized something: “Did you pay for it in advance, since you didn’t pay the cashier?”

Tsumugi just smiled. “Actually, my father owns this store.”

“…huh.”

She then thought about something. “Oh, you play guitar, right? If you ever need to buy anything from here, call me first, and I’ll arrange a discount for you.”

“…sure.”

“Alright, then. Let’s head back,” she said with a smile, and began walking towards the escalator.

It took my legs some seconds to slowly start moseying after her. My brains were totally fucked. Yes, her father was a businessman, I knew that already, but this was just too much for me to handle. I didn’t know what to think, what to say, what to do, so I just followed her. Out of the mall, to the station, into the train, and so on. My brains recovered just as we got back to the Kotobuki residence. Only then I noticed how much strain the keyboard was giving to my shoulders. Damn, this isn’t something a normal lady could carry around on a daily basis. Finally getting inside, I immediately handed the bag over to Tsumugi, and massaged my tired shoulder. I was just about to ask her something, when suddenly, Saitou appeared out of the living room. As he saw me, his expression turned annoyed.

“Sugimoto-san! Where have you been all morning?” he questioned me in a strict tone.

Aw, fuck, of course. No one has seen me enter, wash the cars in the garage, nor leave with Tsumugi. I might as well have never been here to begin with in their eyes.

I swallowed nervously. “W-well, uh, y-you see—”

“He was with me,” Tsumugi said quickly, cutting me off.

“W-with you?” Saitou muttered confusedly, his annoyance completely gone.

Tsumugi nodded. “Yes, I asked him to help me with some errands.”

She then looked… no, she glared at Saitou. Her face was all smile, but I swear I could see her pupils shrink a bit, as if out of furiousness or something.

Do you have a problem with that?

…damn, that actually sent some chills down my spine. Saitou, too, seemed to have gone a bit pale.

“…I, well, uh… N-no, it’s just that…” he began nervously stuttering. As he couldn’t find any words, he slowly began walking past us towards the kitchen. “W-well, carry on.”

We watched as he nervously walked away, until he was out of our sight. A bit dumbstruck, I slowly turned to look at Tsumugi, who had a sorry smile on her face.

“Oh, I’m so sorry for his behavior, it was just a simple misunderstanding,” she apologized.

His behavior? Yeah, his behavior sure was strange, but only after you gave him that death stare! Just what the hell was that? Do I even dare to ask?

“I, uh, see,” I said unsurely, and finally recalled the question I was just about to ask her: “So, is there anything else for me to do?”

“My, let’s see…” she said, placing her finger on her lip as she thought. “There was a strong wind last night, so the patio and the walkways are probably covered with leaves and such.”

I nodded. “Got it.”

Stopping by the mudroom to grab a broom, I headed to the backyard. Yeah, there were some leaves here and there, but not much. Well, whatever, I’ll just sweep what’s there and rake the ones on the grass, that should keep me busy for some time. Without further ado, I began sweeping one of the walkways. It’s actually kinda relaxing. Maybe that’s why mom does it almost daily. Dad, on the other hand, likes to sweep our car whenever there’s even the slightest form of dirt. Tamiko likes sweeping Dash’s coat, and my brother… uh, is probably sweeping some construction site, I guess. Blah, what am I even thinking at this point…

Soon it was lunch time. Even though I ate a lot of those pancakes back home, I still had some room for Provenza’s foods. After finishing my lunch, I headed upstairs. At first I planned on going to the library, but my eyes were drawn to Sumire’s room’s door. Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen her all day. Hm, I guess having some company wouldn’t do me any harm. So, I walked to her door, knocking on it. I swear I could hear something suddenly dropping on the floor.

“U-uh, yes?” I heard her asking.

Now what’s all that nervousness about? What’s she doing, anyway? My rationality told me to wait until she’d answer the door herself, but my teenager’s curiosity made me open the door. Carefully peeking inside, I saw Sumire lying on the floor, her hand reaching somewhere under the bed.

“…uh, you okay?” I asked her.

“O-oh, it’s you,” she said, quickly sitting up. “I… You just took me by surprise, so I… I tripped.”

Bullshit.

“I see…” I muttered, pretending to not know any better. “You mind if I come in?”

“Eh? Oh, uh, no. Go ahead.”

I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. Sumire got up, and took a seat on her chair.

“So, uh, what is it?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Nothing, just wanted to hang out a bit.”

“Oh? But, I thought I didn’t have any books that would interest you.”

Yeah, well, I’m not exactly here to read. Originally I came here to just hang out, but now, I wanted something else. I wanted to find out about something.

“Yeah, but you’ve got juice and snacks,” I quipped as I took a step forward.

Sumire puffed her cheeks, a bit annoyed looking. “You’re really shameless, you know that?”

I just quietly snickered to myself as I took another step forward. As I did that, I “accidentally” managed to trip on the edge of the rug, and soon came tumbling down. I was lying on my stomach, right next to the bed. Man, I’d be a great actor.

“A-are you alright!?” Sumire panicked.

I, however, ignored her words, as I was eyeing under the bed. Yes, there’s the box! And it’s not right next to the wall anymore, but in the middle. It must be the reason why she was reaching under the bed just a minute ago. What’s in there that has to be hidden? Damn it, I… I just can’t fucking take it anymore. Sure, I could get fired, but money can’t buy me the release out of this torture called curiosity. With a swift move, I reached for the box, pulling it out from under the bed. It felt rather heavy, narrowing down the things I thought it would hold.

“Now what do we have here?”

Sumire didn’t react right away. I’m not sure if it was due to the shock of me falling, or the shock of me suddenly pulling out the box. Well, suits me just fine. I quickly sat up, putting the box on my lap, and opening it.

“…huh?” I muttered to myself.

Right at that second, Sumire finally reacted, reaching her hand towards me. “W-wait, don’t—!”

She grabbed the box off my lap. However, she lost her grip, and managed to drop the said thing, its contents scattering around the floor, all for me to see.

“—Ah!”

It was followed by silence, as we both just eyed the things on the floor. Sumire quickly realized there wasn’t anything she could do anymore, so she just blushed, covering her face with her hands. I glanced at her, and then at the things on the floor. It was manga, at least a dozen of them. No wonder the box felt a bit heavy, it was filled with those things. I grabbed the one closest to me, checking the pages. High school, gym storage room, boy and girl get trapped and have to spend the night there… and of course sex happens. Just your generic erotic manga. I set it down, and picked up another one. Now, this one’s about the secret love life between two girls. And what’s this then…? Lolis? Damn, this gal’s got everything.

“Huh, great collection,” I said, giving a slight nod.

Sumire just kept silent, but I could see her peeking at me through her fingers, probably so she could see my reaction. I wasn’t waiting for her to answer. Instead, I picked up the box, and began collecting the manga back into it. Sumire slowly took her hands off her face, looking rather surprised and confused.

She watched me collecting the manga for some time, until I could hear her low voice: “You… You’re not going to…?” She couldn’t finish her sentence, probably due to embarrassment.

“Judge? Make fun? No,” I said, shaking my head. “Why would I?”

My words didn’t help with her confusion. “W-well, since… You know…”

With a frustrated sigh, I stopped what I was doing, and turned to face her. “Look, gal. Go outside, find some people your age, and ask them if they have porn hidden in their room. Half of them will be too embarrassed to say anything, and the other half will lie and say no.”

Her embarrassment finally started to settle. “…oh?”

I continued on collecting the manga, muttering under my breath: “…besides, I thought it would be something cool.”

“W-what do you mean?” she asked unsurely.

“A gun, drugs… hell, even a bottle of booze would’ve been cool,” I answered in the midst of my work.

I got the job done, closed the box, and pushed it back under the bed. I then got up, and sat down on the edge of the bed. Sumire, however, still looked a bit sheepish. Ugh, things will be awkward if this continues…

I slapped my knee lightly to get her attention. “Look, as I said, you don’t need to be embarrassed about—”

“Shut up, you shameless idiot!” she quickly retorted, cutting me off. “Just… Just forget about it already.”

She was blushing out of annoyance. Well, now. Easily embarrassed, aren’t we? Well, at least she’s not sheepish anymore. Now that that’s taken care of, time to change the subject.

Snickering quietly to her reaction, I sighed amusedly. “Okay, whatever. By the way, what’s up with Tsumugi-san and your uncle?”

“Eh? What do you mean?”

I tilted my head towards the door. “Earlier today she gave him some kind of a death stare, and he almost shat his pants.”

Confused at first, Sumire giggled a bit. “Oh, that. My uncle has a bad habit of being, well, a bit too dedicated to his work. He’s always there to serve Miss Tsumugi, whether she wants it or not. And if he happens to bother her, for example when she’s having a phone call, there’s always hell to pay.”

Huh... Good thing Tsumugi considers me as a friend. If I’ve learnt something during these past few years, it’s that you really can’t judge a book by its covers. I ended up spending my break talking with Sumire about the various mishaps Saitou has did to anger Tsumugi, laughing all the way.

A week went by in a flash, and it was already Friday. Wake up, go to work, do some chores, eat lunch, do more chores, clock out and head home, talking with Sumire and Tsumugi once in a while. Such a simple job, as far as summer jobs go. I actually ended up kinda liking it. If it would be possible, I’d have this as my day job. I mean, I guess it would be possible if I somehow joined the Saitou family… Yeah, no, not going to happen. Speaking of the Saitou family, I was spending my last break in the library with Sumire. She had brought some snacks along as a ‘farewell gift’, even though I still had a few hours of work left. Well, whatever, I appreciate the gesture. We were talking about our plans for the future.

“…so, assuming you’ll get accepted to Sakuragaoka, we might meet there next year,” I finished my sentence, and sipped my drink.

“Oh? So, you’ll stay in this town after high school? No plans for college?” she asked.

I shook my head. “Nope. I guess I’ll find a job.”

Sumire thought about something, and got an idea. “Ah, I remember hearing Kotobuki-sama talking about how one of his offices will soon be needing more workers, so maybe you could—”

“Hell no,” I said swiftly, frowning a bit. “I need a job, yes, but I won’t become a salaryman.”

Taken aback at first, Sumire soon smiled slightly. “Well, suit yourself.”

An hour later I was working on the backyard, trimming the bushes with a pair of hedge shears. Since it was my last day here, I wanted to get this done right, so I took my time, being careful and precise. Or maybe I took it slow out of laziness, who knows. Anyway, after a few more snips, I took many steps backwards, scoping out my work. Yup, seems about right. Maybe a more skilled gardener would’ve done a better job, but whatever. Wiping the sweat off my forehead, I headed to the mudroom to return the shears, clean my shoes, and walked further into the house to find something else to do. However, as I stepped into the living room, I could smell something. Smoke. And not just any smoke, it was cigar smoke. Slowly and nervously, I turned to look at the couches. On one of them sat a well dressed man, smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper.

…wait, those eyebrows…

…oh.

…Oh!

Right when I finally realized who he was, he turned to look at me. His eyes… I’m not sure why, but just being under his gaze caused a feeling of humility to rush through my whole body. I just stood there like a fucking idiot for three whole seconds, until I remembered to greet him.

“Good day, Kotobuki-sama,” I greeted him, bowing respectfully.

I could hear him rustling his newspaper, followed by his deep, hoarse voice: “So, you’re Sugimoto, our newest summer employee?”

“Yes, I am,” I answered, straightening my posture. Keep calm, Sugimoto. Keep calm and breathe.

“Well, then…” he said, returning to his newspaper. “I’d like some tea.”

I nodded. “Right away.”

I almost began sprinting towards the kitchen, but my quick thinking limited my speed to just fast paced walking. Through the lobby and the dining room, I finally got to the kitchen.

“Hey, Provenza. Kotobuki-sama wants some tea,” I told the chef.

“Of course. He arrived just fifteen minutes ago. I was starting to wonder why he hadn’t asked for tea yet,” he muttered to himself, and began digging around the cupboards. “While you’re there, fetch me a serving tray and some Nordic sugar cubes.”

Minutes passed, and the tea was done. Provenza loaded the tray full of stuff, and now it was my time to shine, or to fuck everything up. Quickly but carefully, I carried the tea tray over to the living room, setting it down on the coffee table. Following Sumire’s teachings, I poured the tea into the cup, setting the cup in front of Kotobuki.

“How many sugar cubes would you like?” I asked him, just as Provenza instructed me to.

Without turning his gaze from the newspaper, he said: “…I think I’ll have three.”

Plop, plop, plop, went the sugar cubes. Provenza also told me to leave the tray until he would be done with his tea. Good, gives me a change to go somewhere else so I won’t fuck anything up here.

“Enjoy your tea, Kotobuki-sama,” I said, bowing. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

And just as I was about to make my leave, he suddenly set his newspaper aside, saying: “Wait.” Shit, did I do something wrong!?

“Sit down,” he continued. “It won’t take me long to finish this tea.”

Just like Tsumugi, huh… Well, it’s an order from the big man himself, so I took a seat on one of the couches. Taking one last puff from his cigar, Kotobuki set it down on an ashtray, and picked up his teacup. He took a long sip, and let out a sigh.

“I’ve missed this taste,” he muttered to himself.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to say anything, but I didn’t want to risk it. He took another sip, this time a more casual one, and cleared his throat a bit.

“So,” he said. “I’ve heard that you do a fine and diligent job. That’s good.”

“Uh, thank you,” I said sheepishly.

He was about to take another sip, when he halted, thinking something. “Sugimoto…” I could hear him muttering to himself. Finally taking that sip, he asked: “Where does your family come from?”

“Well, my father’s family is from the northern parts of Iwate Prefecture, that’s also where I was born. And my mother’s family is from this area,” I told him.

“I see,” he nodded.

The following minute was spent in silence, as Kotobuki was sipping his tea once in a while. Meanwhile, I was just sitting there, eyeing around the living room. My nervousness began to settle a bit.

“Are you planning on going to college?” he suddenly asked me.

Hesitating a bit, I shook my head. “No, I’m not. I think I’ll look for a job after I graduate.”

Kotobuki kept looking at me for some seconds, until he nodded approvingly. “Well, it’s better than nothing.” I don’t think I won any points with that answer…

He drank the rest of his tea, set the cup down, and sighed. “For the past couple of weeks I’ve done nothing but traveled from place to place, attending different meetings. Hell, even here at home I can hardly get away from work.”

Damn, the more he talks, the more he starts sounding like an actual human being rather than some hard-boiled business tycoon.

“What about vacation?” I asked.

He raised his eyebrows slightly, almost as if he was surprised by my words. Shit… Well, I already opened my big mouth, so might as well say what I think.

“Maybe it would help if you had a chance to clear your mind, and just relax for a bit.”

He kept looking at me for some seconds, which seemed to last for way too long. Then, he just snorted, turning his gaze forward.

“You know what? That might actually be what I need right now.” Wait, really?

He reached his hand towards his shoulder and massaged it, grunting slightly. “Maybe a few days in Northern Europe, the lakes there are a beautiful sight.”

“Sounds good,” I said with a nod.

He didn’t say anything else. He had already finished his tea, so I decided to clear the tray away. I picked up the empty tea cup, set it on the tray, and picked it up. Now, I’ll just take this to the kitchen, and maybe—

“Wait,” he said, and I immediately halted, turning to face him. “Just leave it there, I’ll have someone else clean it up. Also, I have something to say.”

Just as he ordered, I lowered the tray back on the table, and stayed where I was. He reached to pick his cigar from the ashtray, relighting it, and taking a puff. He then turned to look at the window, and the blue sky behind it.

“It’s a beautiful day outside. A young, healthy man such as yourself shouldn’t waste it doing chores around some house,” he explained, and I swear I could actually see him smiling a bit. “I hope you’ve learnt something during your time here, and that it’ll help you in your future. You’ll receive your paycheck next week’s Monday. It has been a pleasure to be your employer.”

Wait… Did my comment about a vacation actually please him? And now he’s letting me go early? Okay, maybe I’ve been a bit too pessimistic during this whole time. After all, he’s just a man, just like me. Only older. And richer. And more powerful. And… Aw, screw it, I’m getting out of here. But not before I play a butler for one last time.

“Thank you. It has been a pleasure to work here,” I said, bowing one last time, before heading off to the mudroom.

Getting my clothes changed, I was once again dressed in my good old red hoodie. Nicely folding my work clothes, I put them into the locker. I almost took a step towards the door, until I realized I accidentally pocketed the house key. I dug the said thing out, looking at it. Hmm, what if… No, security cameras and all. Looking at it for one second more, I finally put it into the locker next to the clothes. And now I was ready to leave. I stepped outside, and began walking towards the gate.

“Eiji-san!”

I stopped and turned around, seeing Tsumugi standing at the front door. She was waving at me. “Goodbye!”

I couldn’t help but smile as I waved my own hand.

“See ya, Tsumugi-san!”

God damn, it felt good to speak to another person like an actual human being instead of kissing their ass. Heh, I take back what I said earlier; I don’t think this work would suit me after all.

Chapter Text

Now that my summer vacation has “officially” started, there was nothing stopping me from staying up until dawn. That’s exactly what I did the day after my job ended. I bought hell of a lot of snacks, spending my night playing games. I ended up pulling an all-nighter, only hitting the hay at 8am. The rest of my family left for a trip early in the morning, leaving me to watch the house for a couple of days. No one to disturb my sleep, and no one to complain about me making too much noise, great! There’s nothing better than waking up naturally, without something to disturb yo—

Ding, dong!

…of course.

I slowly opened my tired eyes, staring at the ceiling. Damn it, I don’t even need to check the clock to know that I haven’t slept enough, maybe five hours or so. Ah, whatever, I’ll just go back to sleep…

Ding, dong!

What, again? Ugh, just give up already… Or, maybe it’s something important? Maybe I should check it out, I can always go back to sleep later. Taking some seconds to gather my strength, I got out of the bed, picking up my pants and t-shirt from the floor. As I was getting dressed, I heard the front door opening.

“Is anyone home?”

That’s a voice I’d recognize a kilometer away.

“…yes, come on in!” I gave a tired answer.

Finally getting dressed, I checked myself from the closet’s mirror to make sure I didn’t look like a total mess. Eh, only half-a-mess, it’ll do. I slowly moseyed downstairs, spotting the visitor in the living room. She, of course, was Ui. However, there was another girl, too, who had crouched down to pet Dash.

“Good morning, Eiji-kun,” Ui greeted me.

“Yo,” I said with a wave of a hand, and nodded towards the unfamiliar gal. “Who’s she?”

The girl turned to look at me, frowning. “Geez, give me a break!”

That’s when I finally recognized her. “Ah, the cat girl. You’ve got yourself some tan.”

‘Some’ was an understatement; her skin was totally tanned, which is why I didn’t recognize her at first.

“That’s because we went on a trip to a rock festival, and it was sunny out there,” Azusa explained, and frowned again. “And I have a name, you know!”

I just smirked at her, as she continued petting Dash. As the rest of my brain began to wake up, I noticed something about the girls.

“Why are you gals in your school uniforms?”

“Ah, we’re planning on going to school to give Jun-chan some treats, her Jazz Club practices even during the summer break,” Ui explained, showing me a small lunch box in her hands. “We came over to ask if your sister would like to come along, too.”

I sighed tiredly. “Sorry, but the rest of my family went on a trip just this morning, Tamiko included. They’ll be gone for a couple of days.”

“…oh, that’s a shame,” she muttered.

I kept looking at her for a few seconds. “What if I came in her stead?” I asked half-seriously.

I didn’t expect to get much of an answer, but to my surprise, Ui actually seemed to think about it. “…I wonder if the school would allow it. It’s summer vacation, so maybe they’re not so strict about rules.”

Wait, gal, I was just joking. Unsurely, I turned to look at Azusa. She kept her eyes on Dash, staying quiet. Almost as if she was thinking about it, too.

“What do you think, Azusa-chan?” Ui suddenly asked her.

Azusa frowned a bit, but sighed right after. “…fine. But even a single word from a teacher, and you’re out of there, got it?” she said, glancing at me from the corner of her eye.

Confused, I just scratched the back of my head, muttering under my breath: “…I wasn’t actually serious, but alright.” I then turned to Ui. “You’re not in a hurry, are you?”

“Oh, no,” she shook her head.

“Great, because I need some coffee,” I sighed tiredly, heading to the kitchen.

When the coffee was done, I decided to go on the front porch to drink it, and the girls followed me. As we were sitting on the porch’s steps, watching the surrounding scenery, a question came to my mind.

“How long you reckon we’ll be out?” I asked the girls.

Ui cocked her head. “How so?”

I nodded towards the front door. “Just thinking if I should call someone over to watch Dash.”

Honestly, there was no reason for Dash to be watched. The worst she could do is sleep through the end of the world. However, if you forget to give her the evening meal, she’ll become the most passive-aggressive dog you’ve ever seen.

Ui turned her gaze upwards, thinking. “Well… Maybe a few hours. After we’ve delivered the snacks, we could go out and have some fun.”

“Alright,” I nodded, sipping my coffee.

Now, if I remember correctly… Ah, I was right, my phone was in my pants’ pocket. I dug it out, browsing through the contact list. Tadaaki was on a trip and wouldn’t return until next Tuesday, but Ichiro should still be in town, hopefully without anything better to do. So, I chose his number, and called it. It took half a minute for him to answer.

“…the fuck?” he muttered tiredly.

I snickered. “Well, morning to you, too. What, you spent the night watching some adult channels?”

He gave a half-assed laugh for an answer. “But seriously, what do you want?”

“Care to come over and watch my dog for the afternoon? I’ve got things to do elsewhere.”

“Man, can’t that dog take care of itself?” he sighed. “I really wouldn’t want to bother right now.”

“Oh, come the fuck on,” I clicked my tongue. “Have some heart, help a friend in need.”

He chuckled tiredly. “What, we’re friends now?”

“Now, don’t be a cheeky little asshole. You know what? You can just come over, continue on with your wet dreams, and wake up later to feed the dog. How’s that?”

“Oh, fuck you and your wet dreams,” he muttered. “What do I get as compensation?”

“You get me not breaking your front teeth,” I quipped.

“No, seriously. I’m kinda broke right now.”

I thought about it for a couple of seconds, and shrugged to myself. “…okay, I guess I can give you 1000 yens.”

“Dude, you’re cheap,” he snickered. “…alright, fine. I’ll be there soon, Mr. Cheapskate.”

“Yeah, fuck you too, Mr. Bitch,” I said with a grin, before ending the call.

I shoved the phone back into my pocket, and sipped my coffee. Man, Ichiro can be a real dickhead at times. On the other hand, I guess it’s understandable if someone is a bit grumpy after being woken up by such a stupid phone call. I guess 1000 yens is the least I can give him for his troubles. Honestly, I’d give him more, but I’ve got a feeling I’ll be needing the rest of my money. Ui said we’d probably be going somewhere, and if it costs money, I’d like to pay for it myself. But, speaking of Ui, the girls seemed a bit quiet. I turned to look at them, and was met with a pair of shocked faces.

“…what?” I asked them.

Azusa frowned. “…is that how you talk to your friends?”

Oh, shit. Yeah, I just completely forgot about keeping my language in check.

I kept looking at them for some seconds, until I shrugged, and sipped my coffee. “Only to my guy friends.”

“…wet dreams?” I heard Ui muttering to herself, confused, before turning to face me. “Eiji-kun…?”

Oh no, please don’t give me a lecture.

“…what does ‘wet dreams’ mean?”

See, here’s another reason for keeping my language in check. Not only because of the vulgarity, but also because it saves me from these overly embarrassing questions. These gals are too pure.

A few moments passed, and I found myself standing in Sakuragaoka’s hallway. Both Ui and Azusa had pressed their ears against a door, which allegedly belonged to the Jazz Club. Though I was standing a couple of meters away, even I could hear that the classroom was empty. I felt both nervous and excited coming here, but now that I’m here, I can’t help but notice how few students there are about. I mean, sure, it’s summer vacation, but still. The hallways were quiet, I couldn’t hear any sounds coming from any classrooms. Only students I saw were some members of some sports club jogging a bit further away in the yard. Well, can’t blame them. Even though clubs are nice and all, many would still prefer spending their summer doing something else.

“No one’s there,” I muttered to the girls, getting bored.

Ui stepped away from the door. “I think you’re right.”

“I guess they take a break during Obon,” Azusa opined.

Oh, right. It’s Obon, isn’t it? That’s why my family went on a trip in the first place. Honestly, I kinda felt tempted to go with them, since I haven’t seen my grandparents in a while. But on the other hand they’re still healthy, and won’t be dropping dead in a hundred years, so I guess I can visit them some other time. Well, since Jun wasn’t at school, Azusa suggested that we’d go to her club room to eat. However, we’d need a key from a teacher.

I decided to wait outside the Staff Room while the girls went in to get the key. However, I was soon called inside. The hell, are they trying to get me busted on purpose? Taking a careful peek inside the room, I noticed only one teacher there: Sawako.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san. Don’t be shy, it’s just me here,” she said with a slight smile.

Unsurely, I stepped further, raising my hand. “Yeah, hi.”

She held her chin with a smug expression. “You’re very blatant, coming to an all-girls school just like that.”

“Lady, I don’t want to hear about blatantness from you,” I muttered to her, unamused.

She got confused for a while, until she seemed to realize something. She put a passive-aggressive smile on her face, turning to look at Azusa.

“Azusa-chan, what have you girls told him about me?”

Azusa flinched. “N-nothing, not a single word!”

She, of course, was lying. I’ve heard enough stuff about Sawako to file a complaint and get her fired. But I like her, at least more than all the other tight-assed teachers, so I’ll just let her do her thing. It’s not like I’m a model student, either. After some small chit-chat, she finally handed us the key to the club room.

“Now, Sugimoto-san, remember to behave yourself,” Sawako said with a smile.

No, lady, I’m going to go sniffing around the locker rooms and jack off in a corner the second I get out of your sight. What kind of a horny teenager she takes me for? Exiting the Staff Room, the girls and I began heading upstairs to the club room.

“…by the way, Ui-san, got anything for me to eat?” I asked Ui.

She raised the lunch box, smiling. “Yes, you can eat Jun-chan’s portion. It’s fruit jelly.”

“Nice, everything tastes better when it’s taken from someone else,” I quipped with a grin.

Some sets of stairs later we got to the third floor, where we entered the club room. Still the same, if my memory serves me right. Five school desks arranged to form one big table, a gorgeous tea set in a display (I’m pretty sure I know the owner of that one), a few musical equipment here and there… The only thing missing was the aquarium with the turtle in it. Eh, it’s summer vacation, so maybe one of the girls is taking care of it. Ui headed to the table, and began messaging Jun about her whereabouts, while Azusa opened one of the windows, and watched the scenery. I could hear some voices coming from outside, maybe some club practicing? Ah, shit, speaking of clubs, the guys and I really need to find some new members, if we want to secure the future of the Coffee Club. I bet it’ll be really difficult at this point, but we need to try, at least. I better look into it more when I get back to school. If Daichi hears about the club not getting any new members, he’d probably beat me up so bad I’d need to repeat high school.

I walked to the table, pulling out a chair next to Ui. “Any word from Jun-san?”

“Not yet,” she said, looking at her phone on the table. “Maybe she went somewhere.”

I nodded for an answer, and sat down. Straightening her pose, Azusa closed the window and moved herself to the table. Ui opened the lunchbox, taking out three packs of fruit jellies of different colors.

“Eiji-kun: peach, plum, or mango?”

I pretended to think about it for a second. “…mango.”

She handed me over a pack of orange colored jelly, and another one to Azusa, keeping the third one for herself. Without further ado, we began enjoying the jellies… I mean, it was a bit lukewarm, but I wasn’t in the position to complain about it. As I ate, I was overcome with tiredness, most likely due to my sleep debt. Right after I finished the jelly, I rested my head on the table to get some rest, while the girls talked about something by themselves. Their muffled voices soon faded as my consciousness drifted away.

The singing of cicadas, it’s the sound of summer. Their singing is always the same, but why do they do that, anyway? Is it a signal or something? To keep the aliens away, or what? Huh, a war between cicadas and aliens… If ten aliens fought against thousand cicadas, who would win? I mean, assuming the aliens don’t have their laser weapons. Also assuming that they’re humanoid, and not the monsters with claws and big teeth you see in some movies…

Wait, the fuck am I thinking about? Am I sleeping?

Opening my eyes, I saw nothing but the top of the table, surrounded by my sleeves. Ah, what a comfortable sleeping position, maybe I’ll just go back to sleep… No, wait, I’m in Sakuragaoka. I slowly raised my head, and suffered the pain caused by the room’s brightness. Looking around me, I noticed Ui and Azusa, both of them asleep. Ah, no wonder I wasn’t woken up by them. Though I still felt a bit tired, I decided it’d be better to get up. Should I wake the girls up, too? I glanced at Ui, sleeping soundly and peacefully. Eh, I guess I’ll let them nap for a bit longer…

I walked away from the table, scoping my surroundings. What should I do to pass the time? I thought about exploring around the school, but that’d probably get me in trouble, even if Sawako’s the only teacher here. Okay, so no leaving the club room. What’s there even to do here? Should I dig around that tea set display in case there’s some snacks hidden in there? Or not, I still remember the time I stole a piece of chocolate from Yui when she wasn’t looking, but she still noticed it missing, and man, what a ruckus followed. With that in mind, I don’t want to risk stealing any snacks, in case they’re Yui’s. Or maybe they’re Miss Kotobuki’s. Yeah, no, I don’t even want to know what she’d do to me, with her death stare and all.

Alright, then. What else is there…? Ah, a blackboard. Just a simple blackboard you’d find in every classroom in every school, but enough to provide entertainment when needed. I walked over to it, picked up a chalk, and thought for a while. Should I draw something? I’m not much of an artist, but I can draw a good penis once in a while. Though, I’m not sure if I’d dare to draw something like that, with the gals present and all that. Instead, should I write something? Hm, maybe not something that’ll make the club members hate me once they find it. Ugh, I can’t really come up with anything not-so-offensive-but-still-funny to write. I’ll just write the first thing that comes to my mind…

I love Ui’s food!

Heh, there. That should confuse whoever finds it. Now, to hide it… Ah, I’ll place the chalkboard eraser in front of it. There we go.

I placed the chalk back, and took a couple of steps backwards. The blackboard didn’t provide as much entertainment as I thought it would, guess I’m just not creative enough. I glanced at the sleeping girls. Should I finally wake them up? Or, maybe I could pull a prank on them. But what prank won’t end with them getting angry at me…? Oh, wait, I recall watching something on TV. They said that if you speak softly enough to a sleeping person, you appear in their dreams or something. I call bullshit, but it doesn’t hurt to try. At least I hope so.

“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” I quietly muttered to myself, trying to decide which girl would be the subject of my scientific test.

After a bit of pondering, I ended up picking Ui, since Azusa would probably smack me on the face if she suddenly woke up and found me whispering in her ear. I walked to Ui, crouching down next to her. She was resting her head on the table, sleeping peacefully, breathing softly. I kept looking at her for some seconds, until I moved myself closer, my mouth next to her ear. I bet this would look really shady out of context.

Yo, Ui-san,” I whispered to her.

…and, no answer. Of course. Or at least I thought so, until I saw Ui moving. As she slowly opened her eyes, I quickly retreated. She raised her head, yawned, and began rubbing the sleep out of her eye. Damn it, my whispering woke her up!

“…what?” she asked me.

Aw, shit, now what!? I was desperately trying to come up with some excuse, when Ui’s phone suddenly began vibrating on the table. She didn’t seem to notice it.

“…uh, your phone,” I said, pointing at the thing.

“Oh,” she muttered, picking up the phone. “I fell asleep.”

She checked the message, smiling right after. “Ah, it’s from Jun-chan.”

She showed the message to me. It was a picture of a bored-looking Jun, a pretty countryside in the background.

“Their club is on a break during Obon, so she’s visiting her grandmother,” Ui explained.

“I, uh, see…” I muttered.

I let out a silent sigh of relief. Thanks, Jun, you saved me at the last second… From the corner of my eye, I saw Azusa raising her head slightly. Huh, so she woke up, too. I glanced at her, and froze when I saw her stern expression. What’s that about? No, wait, how long has she been awake? While Ui was occupied with writing a message to Jun, I slipped closer to Azusa, crouching down to her level.

How much did you see?

Everything. What were you trying to do?” she whispered back.

I glanced elsewhere, frowning. “…just forget about it.

Pervert,” she retorted quietly.

Ui raised her gaze from the phone and looked at us confusedly, so I decided to back off for now, taking a step backwards.

“So, Jun-san is in the countryside. What now?” I asked.

Ui cocked her head. “Don’t you remember? We planned on going to see a movie.”

“We did…?” I muttered. Hm, maybe we did, but I was probably half-asleep at that point. “Oh, right. What kind of a movie, exactly?”

“Well, Azusa-chan suggested that we’d watch a horror flick.”

Horror flick, huh… I’ve never been a big fan of them. Not because they’re scary or anything, I actually enjoy a good scare once in a while. They’re just clichés after clichés, and are usually pretty predictable. I thought about voicing my opinion on the matter, but then decided to just let it be. Who knows, maybe I’ll enjoy this movie.

One walk later, we got to the mall, and headed straight to the mall’s cinema. The girls began browsing the movie listing, while I spent my time watching people coming and going, since I really didn’t care what movie we’d watch. I’ve been to this cinema a few times before, but it sure has been a while since the last time. Thanks to the internet, I can watch movies whenever I want for free. Regardless, there’s something about cinemas that makes you want to visit them. Maybe the atmosphere or something, ugh, I don’t know.

“Eiji-san?”

Snapping out of my stupid thoughts, I turned to face the voice, finding Azusa standing next to me.

“Yeah?”

“There’s some time until the next showing, so we’re going somewhere to kill some time,” she explained.

“Right…” I muttered, spreading my arm to my side. “Lead the way.”

We spent the following minutes slowly roaming around the mall, looking at different things and places, but not visiting any. Suits me just fine, since I’d rather save the last of my money in case something urgent comes up. We ended up going to a grocery store, where the girls began browsing the magazines. I really don’t like standing in the middle of the store, browsing magazines like it’s some kind of a goddamn library, but since I had nothing better to do, I ended up swallowing my pride and picking up a video games magazine.

“…maybe I should find a summer job,” Azusa muttered.

I glanced at her. “Hm, do they pay well?”

Ui lowered her own magazine. “Eiji-kun, what are you talking about? Weren’t you working the last two weeks?”

With a flinch, I realized how stupid my question was, and began peering somewhere towards the ceiling. “O-oh, yeah, but… I’m just wondering what the normal summer jobs pay.”

Normal summer jobs?” Azusa repeated after me, giving me a confused glance.

I quietly looked at her for a few seconds, until I turned back to my magazine. “…I’ll explain later.”

Not sure why, but telling the girls about how I’ve been working as Tsumugi’s butler just didn’t feel like a comfortable idea. The girls were still looking at me, both equally confused, so I almost buried my face in the magazine, trying to ignore them… Hey, that post-apocalyptic RPG is getting a sequel next year!

Time passed, and we headed back to the cinema to watch the movie… whatever it was, I don’t even know what we’re about to watch. I didn’t have to wonder about it for much longer, as we headed straight to the box office to get some tickets.

Confusedly staring at my ticket, I turned to face Ui. “…this ain’t horror.”

“No, it’s not. Azusa-chan changed her mind,” she explained.

Huh, she did? I always thought she’d be persistent with her decisions. The genre on the ticket said Drama, so I guess it’s some kind of a drama movie. Well, I generally like those more than horror flicks.

After stopping by the snack booth, we headed to the auditorium, ready for the movie.

“You didn’t get any popcorn?” Ui asked me. Both of the girls had a bucketful of the said thing on their laps.

I shook my head. “Nah, I don’t really care for popcorn. I hate how those thin pieces of kernel get stuck under my gums. Blah…” I muttered, grinding my teeth in disgust.

So, instead of popcorn, I only got myself a multi-colored slushie. Now that I think about it, I guess it’s my favorite ‘snack’, if you can even call it that. We chatted for a while, until the movie started rolling. It quickly became apparent that the movie was about some boy and his dog. Ah, so it’s not the kind of drama I usually watch. Well, let’s see how it holds up.

Over an hour later I had already finished my slushie, and we were nearing the movie’s conclusion, where things got quite emotional. Of course, it takes a lot more than that to get me to shed a tear. Regardless, I still ended up liking it more than I thought at first. Hmm, I wonder how’s Ui? I turned to look at her, and sure enough, she was weeping. Well, not that I expected anything else. Back to the movie, then…

“Sniff…”

H-huh!?

Slowly turning my gaze to the side, I was met with Ui’s head. She had rested her head on my shoulder, continuing on with her sniveling. Did… Did she do that unintentionally, or…? Ugh, anyway, I’m not sure what to do now. Maybe it’s the same thing as with the sleepwalkers; don’t wake them up. Ui’s tears sunk into my hoodie as I did my best to not make any sudden movements. Urgh, I bet Azusa has already noticed this, and is just sitting there with a big, shitty grin on her face… No, she’s sleeping. She’s sound asleep! Just what the hell is wrong with her today!? I seriously hope Ui is able to lift her head off my shoulder, because I damn sure don’t know how to handle this situation!

Ding, dong!

…and there goes my sleep once again. Though, I can only blame myself for it; I knew I’d be getting visitors today, but I still ended up staying up late, watching TV. It’s been a couple of days since Ui’s, Azusa’s and my visit to the cinema, and now that Jun’s back in town, we’d be going to the pool as planned. It’s also the last day I’d be the only one in the house, since my family would be coming back tomorrow… Oh, right, the doorbell rang. Taking a second to gather my strength, I got on my feet and walked to the window, which I opened.

“It’s unlocked!” I yelled outside.

The second after my yell, I could hear the front door opening, followed by a cheery Jun-like greeting: “Mornin’, Sugimoto residence!”

Tiredly smiling to myself, I stretched a bit, before throwing some clothes on. Stopping by the bathroom, I moseyed downstairs to meet the visitors. The first one I met was Ui. She had a sorry smile on her face.

“Sorry for the sudden wake-up,” she apologized.

I just shook my head. “Nah, it’s fine, I would’ve probably overslept otherwise. I’ll just quickly drink some coffee, and we can go.”

Ui’s sorry smile turned into a nervous smile. “Well, actually… We are two hours ahead of the schedule.”

“…huh?”

Ui didn’t answer right away, so I began scoping around, looking for Jun. I quickly found her in the living room. She was crouching down, giving Dash some pats and scratches. As she saw me looking at her, she, too, smiled nervously.

“…W-well, you see, it was my idea,” she muttered. “I… kinda woke up early, and since I had nothing to do, I headed over to Ui’s place. And, well, we got bored, so we decided to come here earlier than what we planned.”

Ui frowned a bit. “It was you who decided on that.”

“Hm, I see,” I nodded, turning around and heading towards the stairs. “Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“A-ah, Eiji-kun, wait!” Ui said hastily. As I looked at her over my shoulder, she continued: “Um, how about I make us some breakfast?”

I halted.

“Or, it’d be breakfast for you, and lunch for Jun-chan and me,” she clarified, and cocked her head. “What do you say?”

God damn it, I just can’t say no to Ui’s food.

“Okay, whatever,” I sighed.

I walked to the kitchen, Ui following right after me. I began making myself some coffee, while Ui just stood there, looking around the kitchen. Her eyes were drawn to the sink, which was half-full of dirty dishes. The counter next to it held a small pile of takeout boxes. I saw her eyeing the mess.

“Don’t even think about it. I’ll clean up later, before my family comes back.”

“O-oh?” she flinched, blushing ever so slightly. Guess I was right.

“…A-anyway, mind if I take a look at what ingredients you have?”

“Go ahead,” I muttered, snapping the coffeemaker on.

I leaned backwards against the kitchen counter, watching Ui as she went through the fridge and cabinets, quietly mumbling something to herself, and clearly making plans. After checking everything, she stood still for a few seconds, until she turned to face me.

“I think I’ll make a simple meat pie,” she announced. “It’ll take a while, so you can enjoy your coffee in the meantime.”

I glanced at the coffeemaker, noticing that the coffee had already dripped. “Ah, right.”

I poured myself a cup of coffee and carried it over to the living room, while Ui began digging around the cabinets for ingredients, utensils and such. I sat down on the couch, picking up a remote and turning on the TV. From the corner of my eye, I saw Jun on the floor next to Dash, both lying lazily. A minute passed, and Jun began squirming.

“I’m bored,” she whined quietly to herself.

I tried my best to not pay her any mind. She, however, sat up, facing me.

“Eiji-kun, can I play on your computer?”

I shook my head. “No.”

She slapped the floor with both of her hands. “Aw, come on! Why not?”

“Because you can’t,” I said, sipping my coffee. “I mean literally. Yesterday, I sold my CPU, since I’ll be getting a new one, anyway.”

See-Pee-You…?” she quietly repeated after me, confused.

With a slight smirk, I turned to look at her. “Let’s just say it’s a very important part. So yeah, my computer isn’t usable right now.”

She pretended to understand what I meant, and got a new idea: “How about your console?”

“No.”

“What, you sold its cee-pee-something too?” she asked

Taking a more comfortable position, I changed the channel. “Nah, I just don’t want any unnecessary racket right now.”

Jun puffed her cheeks, unamused. “You’re a real piece of work, Eiji-kun.”

“You’re one to talk…” I murmured quietly, sighing out of frustration, and glancing at her. “Look, if you’re seriously that bored, how about you take Dash for a walk?”

“For a walk…?” she muttered, looking at the lazy dog. “…Uh, sure, I guess.”

With a small grin of satisfaction, I sipped my coffee. “The harness and the leash are in the foyer.”

Keeping my eyes on the TV, I could hear Jun walking to the foyer. The second she grabbed the leash off the wall, Dash jumped on her feet and ran to her, causing Jun to let out a surprised noise. A bit later I could hear Jun getting her shoes on.

“Oh, um, what should I do when it…? You know…” Jun asked, her voice drifting off at the end.

Takes a shit? I felt like complementing her sentence, but decided against the idea.

“You know that small stream that runs through the neighborhood? Walk her next to it, on the grass. No need to clean up.”

“O-oh, okay, I guess that’ll work,” she muttered, and I could hear the front door opening. “We’re off.”

And there they go. Finally, some peace. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with having Jun around, she’s actually quite a fun company. Right now, however, I wanted to enjoy my coffee in peace. Also, it saves me from having to take Dash for a walk. Gulping down the rest of my coffee, I laid down on the couch, changing the channel once again. Ugh, I swear to god, there’s nothing but shit on the TV nowadays…

…Wha-… Huh? Did I doze off there for a second? With a heavy sigh, I slowly sat up, scratching my head. Glancing around with tired eyes, I spotted Jun, sitting on the other couch, reading something. Maybe something from the living room’s bookshelf. Wait, on a closer inspection… It’s one of my sister’s manga. Well, I’m sure she won’t mind.

“How long was I out?” I asked her.

“Hm? Oh, you’re awake,” she said, raising her gaze from the manga. “Maybe half an hour or so. I was about to wake you up when I came back, but Ui told me to let you sleep for a bit.”

“Ah, she did, huh…?” I muttered, and recalled something. “Oh, right. How did you do with Dash?”

Returning to her manga, she answered: “Just fine.” She nudged her head towards Dash, who was lazing around on the floor as usual.

Nodding to myself for no reason in particular, I was about to get up, when I noticed something on my lap: a blanket. I didn’t even have to ask. Moving it aside, I got up, walking to the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was the delicious smell. As I got to the kitchen, I noticed Ui crouched down in front of the oven, peering into it. Carefully, I strode over her, and got myself a glass of water.

“How is it?” I asked, after which I gulped down the water in one go.

“Just about done, I’ll let it brown for a minute longer.”

“Sounds good,” I noted, putting the glass on the sink.

Wait a minute. A glass…  A sink… A glass of… water? Water, water… Water! Shit, shit, shit, I completely forgot about watering the plants! God damn it, mom’s going to kill me if even one of them has withered! Where the hell’s that watering can!?

Over an hour later I was standing in front of a vending machine, right next to a grocery store. I thought about my options for a while. I still didn’t feel like trying anything special, so I just got myself a can of basic cola. Cracking it open, I returned to the girls, who were standing in front of the grocery store, which in return was located next to a train station. Once again, I had called Ichiro over to watch the house while I’m gone, and now that I’ve received my paycheck, I could pay him a whopping 1000 yens for his time. He, however, didn’t care about the money that much, since he recently had another fight with his father, and wanted to be somewhere else for a while. As planned, the girls and I were waiting for Azusa so that we could go to the pool together. She, however, seemed to take her time. I was about to comment on it, when Jun beat me to it.

“What’s taking her so long?” she whined.

“A hangover, most likely,” I quipped.

Unamusedly glancing at me over her shoulder, Jun was about to say something, when she was interrupted by a young lady on the other side of the street, trotting towards us.

“Sorry, I needed some time to get ready!”

“…who are you?” Jun asked her.

Her reaction to tanned Azusa was exactly the same as mine. I turned my head away to hide my shitty grin, as Azusa was annoyedly retorting to Jun. Well, now that everyone’s here, we moved to the station to wait for the train, which would take us to the pool. And yeah, it’s the same pool Jun and I visited a bit over two years ago. I remember enjoying my time there, so I bet this trip will be just as fun, maybe even more so now that there’s more of us. However, it made me remember the discussion Jun and I had back then; about how Ui didn’t want to come with us. I never got an explanation for it, but to be fair, I never asked about it either. And as time passed, I completely forgot about it. Oh well, the past is in the past. I, if anyone, should know that.

As the girls talked about some inside stuff, I quickly got bored, stood up, and began slowly pacing along the platform. As I did that, I kept my eyes to the ground, having just remembered one of my brother’s trivial tips: People tend to drop all kinds of stuff when they’re rushing to enter or exit the train, including money. Hm, I wonder how he’s doing. Dude got lucky with our uncle’s job offer, that’s for damn sure. He already has his own apartment, a driver’s license… Shit, he’ll probably have his own car by the end of the year. But anyway, what will I do? Sure, I bet our uncle would hire me if I asked for a job, but I don’t feel like moving away. So, what other options do I have? Part-time jobs? Hmm, I wonder if I could convince my parents to fund me a driver’s license. I’m not sure why, but I like the idea of having a job where I can drive around… Hey, a 100 yen coin! Damn, Daichi was right!

One train ride later we arrived at the pool. It still looked the same as before. Heading to our respective locker rooms, I headed to the least crowded corner to pick a locker, and changed into my swim trunks. Leaving everything else in the locker, I took the key and headed off to the pool. As I stepped outside, it affected all of my senses: the bright sun blinded my vision for a bit, the smell of chlorine and sunscreen wafted from all around, the sound of people having fun was almost deafening, and I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin. Yeah, I guess this is what summer vacation is supposed to be. Playing in the water and soaking up the sun, instead of hanging around the side alleys at night, drinking alcohol and generally being a nuisance. Though, that can be fun, too.

I completely overestimated the time the girls would take to be ready, so I ended up almost nodding off while waiting for them. Finally, I managed to spot Jun amongst the crowd, so I walked over to her. As I did that, she in turn spotted me, and waved her hand. I also noticed Ui standing next to her. However, as I got to them, I noticed something.

“One is missing,” I noted.

“Ah, you mean Azusa? She’s embarrassed about her tan lines, so she’s getting tanned in the corner, over there,” Jun said, pointing at somewhere with her thumb.

I didn’t bother looking at the direction, so I just nodded in agreement. With a smug grin, Jun spread her arms, showing off her green two-piece swimsuit.

“These are new, what do you like?”

Gal, you’re talking to a guy who wears nothing but the same red hoodie all the time…

I just shrugged. “I don’t know. If they feel fine to you, then I guess they’re fine.”

“What kind of an answer is that?” she muttered, unamused. “And you still have those same swim trunks?”

“Yeah, why? It’s not like they’re broken or anything, and they still fit just fine,” I said, raising my leg to get a closer look at the trunks.

Jun frowned a bit. “…I really don’t like your indifferent way of thinking.”

I just smirked at her, and turned to look at Ui. She was wearing a plain, white bikini. Nothing special really, though it felt weird seeing her in a swimsuit. I still tried my best to act normal. Same couldn’t be said about her, though: she actually looked a bit sheepish.

“Ah, Ui’s just feeling a bit shy,” Jun grinned. “Don’t worry, she’ll get over it.”

This caused Ui to snap a bit: “J-Jun-chan!”

“Oh, there we go,” Jun snickered.

She reached into a bag she was carrying, and pulled out a deflated beach ball, which she threw at me. I barely managed to catch it.

“Come on, then. Get to work.”

I looked at her, and then at the limp piece of plastic in my hands. “Once a servant, always a servant…”

Now that I think about it, I don’t really care for pool water. Because of the chlorine, yeah, but I also don’t like the fact that hundreds of all sorts of people are sweating, drooling and pissing in the same body of water. And the chlorine, again, sticks to your skin and smells for the rest of the day. There’s so many people in the pool that it’s difficult to find a spot where you’d have space to breathe, not to mention play around with someone else. Yeah, and then there’s your bag, if you happen to bring it along to the pool. Even if you trust Japan and its low crime rates, you still can’t help but to glance at your bag every now and then, just to check if it’s still there. Though, Azusa’s currently taking care of Jun’s bag, but on the other hand, what could she do if some dude suddenly grabs it and makes a run for it? I tried to think of a scenario where that would happen, but was interrupted by a sudden blow to my head.

“Hey! You listening, you dunce!?” Jun yelled at me.

She had thrown the beach ball at me to get my attention. Not the most elegant way, but it worked, since she had my undivided attention at that moment.

I crouched down to pick up the beach ball from the water. “What’s up?”

“Ui and I will go get some yakisoba, go wait for us with Azusa.”

“Your treat?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Of course not, you’ll pay me back later.”

“Figures…” I muttered.

We got out of the pool and walked to Azusa, who to my knowledge was still tanning next to the parasols. And yeah, she was there, but asleep. Damn, if she had tan lines before, they sure were gone now. Just how quickly does she tan? Is it a gift, or a curse?

Looking pensive, Jun said in a low voice: “Actually, should we leave Eiji-kun with sleeping Azusa after all?”

“Huh, what do you mean?” Ui asked.

Yeah, gal! What the fuck did you mean by that!?

She glanced at me. “He might try to pull a prank on her.”

“Ah, yeah, Eiji-kun has a bad habit of doing that…” Ui muttered.

…Oh. Me and my perverted mind…

I just raised my hands, looking innocent. “Nah, I just want to sit down for a while. I’m too tired to pull pranks right now.”

It was a lie. I’m not going to let this opportunity pass.

Still looking a bit sceptic, Jun finally shrugged. “Okay, then. We’ll be right back.”

She grabbed some money from her bag, and the both of them headed off, leaving me alone with Azusa. I sat down under the parasol, watching the girls disappear into the crowd. Alright, what should I do? Clearly, it was too late to write anything on her skin with sunscreen. If I had some juice, I could’ve made her drink it through her nose. And oh, what would I give for some empty beer cans and a camera. I’d make it look like she’s passed out, and take a picture. Man, I’m out of options. What else is there…? Wait, what if…? I quickly scanned my surroundings to make sure no one was looking at us, and slipped closer to Azusa.

Yo, Azusa-san,” I whispered to her.

W-wha…? Eiji-san, what… are you doing here?” she mumbled in her sleep.

It worked? Shit, it worked! I actually managed to get into her dream! I almost laughed out of excitement, but then remembered to keep calm.

Just stopping by,” I whispered, holding back my chuckling. “You know, Ui-san opened a five-star restaurant recently.

She… She did?” Azusa mumbled, audibly confused.

Yeah, it’s famous worldwide. I’m actually the manager there, that’s why I have this expensive suit.”

I could see Azusa frowning a bit. “But, we’re at the pool. Why are you wearing a suit here?

Oh, so she’s dreaming about the pool? Fitting, I guess.

“I’m just wearing the top part. See? I’m also wearing swim trunks,” I whispered, grinning at the mental image.

Azusa mumbled some confused sounding sounds. “Wha…? What…?”

Shit, shit, this is too much, I don’t know if I can hold my laughter for much longer. Better end this before I ruin it.

“Oh, look at the time, I’ve got to go help out the cicadas. They’re at war with the aliens, you see,” I whispered one last time, before retreating and covering my snickering mouth with my hand.

Azusa just continued on with her confused mumbling. Man, right now I’d really like to see her dream. Maybe I could ask about it when she wakes up? Or not, it’d raise too much suspicion. Well, now that I’m entertained, I guess I can rest for a bit. I dragged myself back under the parasol, laying down. I spent my time staring at the underside of the parasol, occasionally raising my head to get a look around me.

“…The hell’s taking them so long?” I muttered to myself, turning to my side.

Before I met Ui, I’ve mostly spent my summers sleeping, playing games and messing around with my friends. Three years ago today, my last summer vacation in junior high, I was probably sleeping at this time. When the sun started to set, I’d finally wake up, and meet up with my friends at night. We’d spend the night hanging around downtown, passing the bottle around, occasionally smoking Tadaaki’s cigarettes if we felt like it, and getting in trouble. We’d pick fights with other teens, which usually ended up with some outsider threatening to call the police, and us running like hell away. Remembering those times brought a smile on my face, which soon turned into a frown. I’m not like that anymore, at least I try not to be. Though, I still enjoy a nice beer once in a while…

My thought process was cut short by Azusa, who suddenly sat up, making me flinch a bit. “A dream…?” she muttered to herself.

A bit torpidly, she slowly began looking around with tired eyes, until her eyes reached me.

“Where are the others?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Getting yakisoba. Though, they’ve been gone for a while…”

Right at that moment however, a yell could be heard: “Azusa-chan! Eiji-kun!”

Turning to face the voice, I spotted both Ui and Jun skittering towards us, carrying four servings of yakisoba.

“The line was longer than we expected,” Jun explained.

She then took a better look at Azusa, and let out an impressed sound. “Woah, you’re all tanned now!”

“Fast, isn’t it?” Azusa muttered, not sounding too impressed herself. Ah, so it’s a curse…

We sat down under the parasol, and began eating. The girls immediately started talking about some inside stuff, so I just slipped a bit further away, turning to face the other direction. Well, whatever, I’m already used to this. Though it made me think. If I was a girl, I could’ve applied to Sakuragaoka High School, and thus I probably could participate in their conversations. Or, maybe not. As far as I know, Sakuragaoka is of higher quality compared to the other schools in this town. So what if I was a girl? My grades would’ve still been shit. Ugh, I don’t know shit about being the opposite gender. I just concentrated on eating my yakisoba, listening to the girls talk and occasionally throwing a witty remark whenever an opportunity presented itself.

Hours passed by as we were having fun at the pool. As we got back to the town, the sun was already setting, turning the sky orange. According to my watch, I’ve been awake for about six hours, half of which I’ve spent at the pool. And I enjoyed myself a lot, to say the least. We were walking along the street, planning on heading to Ui’s place. I decided to stay back a bit, so that we wouldn’t occupy the whole sidewalk. Honestly, this is nice. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s something about hanging out with Ui and the other gals. Something that can’t be compared with hanging out with my guy friends. It’s just… pure, I guess? Pure and innocent, if that makes sense.

I thought about it as I walked, my gaze pointed upwards a bit. It lasted for a bit, until the girls suddenly came to a halt, and I bumped into Ui, who would’ve probably fallen down if I hadn’t grabbed her by the shoulders. Why the sudden stop? I, however, didn’t have to ask, since as I directed my gaze forwards, I was met with Yui and her friends, standing about ten meters ahead of us. Yui immediately ran over to hug Azusa, which didn’t surprise me anymore at this point.

From what I heard, apparently the girls were studying over at the library, and they’re currently heading to a local festival to relax for a bit. Yui eagerly invited us to come with them. I’ve attended this town’s summer festivals a few times before, and they’ve always been nice, so it sounded good to me. I told the girls I’d be stopping by my home to drop off my bag, and meet them at the festival, so that’s what we did. I walked over to my house, dropped off my bag, paid Ichiro 1000 yen extra, and started heading back. I remember the festival taking place at a river bank, so I headed there. And sure enough, the whole river bank was full of people and festival stalls of different kinds. By the time I got there, the sun had already set, the starry sky sparkling above the town.

I slowly walked along the riverbank, looking at different stalls, smelling the pleasant aromas, and dodging running kids. There’s a lot of people about, maybe hundreds. How am I going to find Ui and the rest? I thought about calling her, but gave up on the idea. If I just keep going straight forward, I’ll bump into them sooner or later. So, I continued on walking, glancing at the stalls once in a while…

…Wait. That’s a coffee stall. And the vendor… That peculiar but cute hairstyle…

I halted, thought about it for a bit, and walked over to the coffee stall. The vendor had crouched down to dig around some boxes, so she didn’t notice me at first. I knocked on the counter, and she finally noticed my presence. As she got up and got a better look at me, she seemed surprised. And I was just as surprised to see her.

“Yo, Yoshiko-san,” I greeted her.

Yoshiko grinned a bit “Ah, if it isn’t Eiji-kun. Did you miss me already?”

“Well, let’s put it this way: at the café, you were a more pleasant sight than those other tired-looking middle aged men,” I quipped.

“My, what a romantic you’ve become,” she snorted. “Would you like something?”

I nodded, digging out my wallet. “Yeah, just a cup of coffee, thanks.”

I received my steaming coffee, served in a paper cup. I decided to stay at the stall for a bit longer to catch up with Yoshiko.

“Whose idea was it to put up a coffee stall, anyway?” I asked.

“Mine,” she said, raising her hand like a schoolkid. “Though, I’m not sure if it was worth it. Nighttime isn’t the best period for selling coffee. Oh well, live and learn, I guess.”

“Right,” I muttered, sipping my coffee. “How’s the college? What were you studying again…? Managerial economics?”

She nodded, and began to wipe the counter with a rag. “That’s right. So far it’s been kinda tough, but I’ll suffer through it. The future of my uncle’s café depends on it.”

“Well I’m not sure if that’s true…” I muttered to myself.

She noticed my reaction. “Just you wait, it’ll become the most famous café in our town! We’ll open new locations, and expand to other towns!” she explained enthusiastically.

I just rolled my eyes and chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll buy your stocks the first chance I get.”

My joke didn’t amuse her. However, a smug smile appeared on her face. I had a bad feeling about it.

“By the way, how’s it going between you and Ui-chan?”

I wasn’t prepared for that question, so I almost choked on the coffee. Yoshiko snickered as I cleaned my mouth with my sleeve, coughing all the way.

“Aw, did I hit a nerve?” she asked mockingly.

I didn’t bother to answer her.

She waited for me to say something for a while. As I didn’t do it, her smug smile turned into a sympathetic one.

“…so you’re not denying it, either?”

I glanced at her from the corner of my eye. “Guess there’s no need...”

We stood in silence for a minute. I sipped my coffee once in a while.

“…but judging by your reaction, she doesn’t know about it. It’s just you, right?” she asked.

After thinking about it for a couple of seconds, I nodded. “Yeah, just me.”

Yoshiko leaned on the counter with her elbows, resting her head on her hands. “Well, then. What’s holding you back?”

“I… I don’t know,” I muttered, looking at the peacefully flowing river. “Guess I’m just waiting for the right moment or something.”

“Or maybe you’re just nervous, and making excuses?”

I shrugged. “Maybe.”

I could hear her chuckling quietly. “Well, I’m not really the one to give advice, so take your time if you feel like it.”

I just nodded for an answer, and sipped my coffee. I noticed I had only a little bit left, so I gulped the rest of it down my throat. Conveniently, there was a trashcan right next to the stall, so I threw the empty paper cup there.

“Thanks for the coffee. I need to keep on looking for my companions.”

“Sure, have fun,” she said, waving her hand. “By the way, I’m in town through the whole summer vacation, so you and the guys better remember to stop by the café.”

“Will do,” I said to her, waving back and continuing on along the river.

After some minutes of walking, I finally managed to find the girls. They were sitting on some stone stairs in a neat row, eating what I presumed to be shaved ice. None of them seemed to notice my presence.

As I walked to them, I decided to say something to get their attention: “Yo. Where’s my serving?”

It did the trick, as the girls turned to look at me, passing by some casual greetings. Ui was sitting at the end of the row, so I sat down next to her. The girls quickly resumed their conversation. Well, everyone except Ui, who was quietly staring at her serving of shaved ice. Before I had time to ask her about it, she suddenly handed the serving over to me.

“Here, you can have this.”

“Huh? I was just kidding, you know…” I muttered.

Ui, however, insisted on it, at least judging by her eyes, so I decided to just go with it and take the serving. It was already half-eaten, so I guess I shouldn’t feel that bad about it. Honestly, I really don’t care for shaved ice, since it’s just… well, ice, with some artificially flavored syrup. But then again, so are slushies, and I like them. Maybe shaved ice is better when drunk, not eaten. I scooped some up with a plastic spoon, and ate it. It tasted like strawberry.

Finishing the ice, I threw the empty aluminum container into a nearby trash can. The other girls seemed to be done with their shaved ices, too. As they were cleaning up, a loud bang could be heard from up in the sky, accompanied by a beautiful, colorful flash of light.

I immediately jumped to my feet. “Fireworks!”

My uncharacteristic overenthusiasm was met with a few confused glances from the girls. I didn’t let them bother me, I just kept my eyes to the sky. Just a second later the girls, too, got excited. Damn right, you should be excited!

“Want to go closer?” I could hear Ui asking.

I turned to look at her, and she was looking back at me, meaning the question was for me.

“Of-fucking-course!” I yelled, not caring to filter my language.

It, however, didn’t seem to bother Ui, since she was just smiling warmly. Yui and the rest of her club began running towards the fireworks, so Ui, Jun and I did the same. It didn’t last for long, however, since our path was blocked by a thick crowd. We tried to push through it, but to no avail, and got stuck half-way through. The fireworks were soon over. I honestly felt quite pissed off about it, and wanted to personally beat up everyone in the crowd. We began pushing our way back to where we came from. As we were almost out of the crowd, Ui managed to spot Azusa standing outside it, and called out for her.

“Where’s sis and the others?” she asked her as we finally got out of the mass.

“I got separated from them,” Azusa muttered.

Jun looked around her with a satisfied smile. “Should we start heading home?”

The rest of us agreed.

Minutes later we were walking along a darkened street. Again, I was lagging two meters behind. Keeping my hands in my hoodie’s pockets, I looked at the urban scenery, thinking about nothing special. However, one thing came to my mind, and after a bit of hesitating, I decided to open my mouth.

“You know, Ui-san…” I called out for the girl in front of me.

Ui looked at me over her shoulder, and slowed her pace to get next to me. “Yes?”

I just gave her a quick glance, before turning my gaze somewhere to the side. “It’s just… I just wanted to say, that… I’ve, uh, I’ve liked…”

“I’ve liked this day, a lot. It was a fun day. Thanks for inviting me.”

Ui cocked her head. “Oh, um, that’s nice to hear. But, why all the gratitude? Of course I was going to invite you.”

I just scratched my ear, trying to act normal. “No, it’s just, uh, I felt like I haven’t thanked you enough recently, that’s all.”

Still looking a bit puzzled, she soon smiled. “…well, I appreciate the gesture.”

It wasn’t long until we came across a bridge, where I had to separate from the girls. Saying our goodbyes to each other, I began heading towards the north-east part of town. One of Yui’s club’s songs came to my mind, so I began humming it as I walked. Oh, right, the family’s returning home tomorrow. Maybe I should buy some snacks on my way home, and spend the night playing games. Yeah, and I could ask Ichiro if he’d like to stay over. Company is always nice, especially when playing games. So, I’ll probably need to buy some chips and soda, and we can order pizza later. Heh, it should be fun…

I slowly came to a halt. I looked around for other people, and didn’t happen to find any. I clenched my fists and pinched my eyes shut out of frustration.

“I’m a fucking moron!” I shouted as hard as I could, the shout echoing around the neighborhood.

I resumed walking, this time at a faster pace. I just couldn’t bring myself to say it to her. I just couldn’t, I chickened out at the last moment. I felt like a damn loser, a pathetic one at that. Shit, let’s just calm down here… Remember what Yoshiko said: take your time. Though, it wasn’t really an advise, but still… Oh well, what’s the hurry, anyway. It’s not like neither of us will disappear anytime soon. I’ll just wait for the right moment. Maybe when we’re alone, when there’s nothing else going on.

…still, I’m a fucking moron.

Chapter Text

The end of the summer break marks the beginning of the second semester. And that means going back to school. The very first day of the second semester, I slept in, waking up at noon. Obviously, since the summer break had left my sleep schedule a complete mess, but also because I just didn’t care to listen to the principal’s boring, monotonic monologue. I arrived at school halfway through the lunch break. After buying myself some lunch, I was just about to head to the basement, until I remembered that it’s always locked after the summer break, and wouldn’t be opened until after the classes. Shitty policy, but no can do; there’s no way to reason with those asshats at the faculty office. It took only a single text message to find my friends, who were hanging around outside, behind the school. We spent the lunch break together, until the bell rang, forcing us back to the class.

Hours passed, and the classes were over. The guys and I were among the first ones to leave the classroom, and we headed straight to the basement, which was now unlocked. Strolling through the basement’s narrow corridor in one, neat line, we finally got to the club room. Opening the door, we stepped in one at the time, me being first.

“Back in town, bitches!” I jokingly yelled at the empty room, throwing my bag on the couch.

Next up was Tadaaki, who also threw his bag on the couch. “Damn, this place is musty. Open some windows, will ya?”

“And hot. Shit, why the hell is it so hot in here…?” Ichiro muttered as he walked in, his airborne bag soon joining ours.

As instructed, I used a chair to climb up and open a couple of windows. In the meantime, Tadaaki headed over to the shelf and began browsing the music section. Having nothing better to do, Ichiro headed to the kitchen area and opened the cabinet, looking at our comprehensive selection of coffee beans and grounds.

With an exhausted sigh, he glanced at us over his shoulder. “Too hot for hot coffee, all in agreement?”

“Yup,” I nodded, jumping down from the chair.

“Sure, why not,” Tadaaki answered, picking a CD-case from the shelf and examining it. “Mocha Cola would do just fine.”

“No can do,” Ichiro said, shaking his head. “We drank all the soda the day before the summer break, remember?”

“Oh, right…” Tadaaki muttered, recalling the said event.

I crossed my arms, glancing at the fridge. “And there’s no milk or cream. We had to use them all, since they would’ve gone bad during the summer.”

“Yeah,” Tadaaki nodded, standing up and walking over to the CD player. “Iced coffee it is, then.”

Frowning a bit, Ichiro moved in front of the fridge, muttering: “Man, I would’ve liked something else for a change… Do we even have any ice?”

He opened the freezer compartment. As he took a look inside, I swear I could see a flash of joy in his eyes.

“Holy fuck, there’s some vanilla ice cream in here!” he announced excitedly.

Surprised by the news, Tadaaki and I glanced at each other. I bet he was thinking the same as I.

With a slight smile, I turned to look at Ichiro, voicing my thoughts: “So, Affogato, then?”

“Right on, man!” he yelled, and immediately began working with the espresso machine.

Now that that’s settled, I suddenly remembered the thing I’ve been thinking over during the summer break. I walked over to the shelf, and began examining all the cardboard boxes there. Meanwhile, Tadaaki turned the stereo system on, and some nice 90’s rock began blasting from the speakers. This is a French band, if my memory serves me right. I was tapping my thigh in the rhythm of the song, when I found the box I was looking for. I reached for it and pulled it off the shelf, causing some dust to fall down with it. Yeah, clearly no one has touched this box in a long time.

“Hm, what’s that?” Tadaaki asked, taking a seat on the couch.

I set the box down on the coffee table, and after noticing Tadaaki’s curious expression, turned it around, so he could see the label: Official Stuff. That, of course, didn’t help with this confusion. Well, whatever. I opened the box, and began browsing through the official looking papers.

Tadaaki crossed his arms. “Seriously, what are you doing?”

I looked at him, stating the obvious: “We’ll need some new members.”

“Ah, shit, right, we do. But that didn’t really answer my question.”

I turned my gaze back to the papers, picking one up and examining it. “Just looking through the club’s history. I know it won’t help us to find new members, but maybe there’s something we don’t know. Something that could help us.”

Tadaaki leaned a bit closer. “Hm? Like what?”

“Like…” I muttered, reading the paper through, and being a bit surprised. “…for example, this isn’t an official club, it’s an appreciation society.”

“Huh, what’s the difference?” Ichiro asked over from the kitchen area, having heard our conversation.

I gazed upwards, thinking. “Well, clubs are clubs. You know, regular activities, advisors, budget… that kind of stuff. Appreciation societies don’t have any of that. We can have a single room for ourselves, but that’s it. We need to pay for everything ourselves.”

“Huh? Wait…” Tadaaki muttered, glancing around him. “You mean… all this was bought by the previous members?”

“Even this?” Ichiro asked, meaning the espresso machine he was currently working with. Those things cost tens of thousands of yen, so I understood his shock.

I nodded. “Yup, seems like it. Who knows, maybe the previous members had part-time jobs or something.”

I set the paper aside, and picked up another one. It didn’t take me long to realize what it was.

“Yo, check this out,” I said, handing the paper over to Tadaaki. “Previous members, before my brother, used to hold coffee stalls at the Winter Festival.”

“Seriously?” he muttered, examining the paper, and then snorting amusedly. “Well, look at that. It actually sounds kinda sweet.”

Ichiro, who was done with the espresso, walked over to us. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Earning money is always nice.”

I looked at both of them. “Wanna do it this year? It’s our last chance.”

They looked at each other, both shrugging.

“Well, I’m cool with that,” Tadaaki said. “But, how do we get permission?”

I raised my hand like a child. “I’ll volunteer to do it. I’ll start attending those club presidents meetings, and find out what there’s to be done.”

The guys thought about it, when Ichiro raised his eyebrow. “Hey, wait a minute. Since when you have been the president?”

I wasn’t amused. “Hey, if you want to waste your time listening to a bunch of asshats talking about things that’ll never concern you, then be my guest.”

He seemed to realize the value of my sacrifice, and chuckled. “Alright, I get it.”

Tadaaki looked at the papers, and then at the ceiling. “Still, where do we get new members…?”

“Yeah, that’s the problem…” Ichiro muttered, also turning his gaze up.

“Hm…” I mumbled, joining them in staring at the ceiling.

“Kyah!”

Our thinking was cut short by a sudden, feminine scream. Snapping out of our thoughts, our gazes were drawn to the door. The scream came from the hallway. The guys and I looked at each other, no one having anything to say. Regardless, everyone was equally curious. So, without a word, we all stood up, walking to the door. I peeked into the hallway, and found only one other door open. It was some storage room, if I remember correctly. Only a few steps later we got to the open door, and peeked inside. To our surprise, we found Hironaka, sitting on the floor, with some papers scattered around her. Almost as if she stumbled or something.

“Uh, yo,” I said to her, getting her attention.

As she noticed us looking at her, she quickly stood up, dusting her clothes. “Oh, um, hi.”

I glanced at the papers on the floor, raising an eyebrow. “Uh, you okay?”

“Uh, yes, I’m fine. I was just getting some old documentation for the student council, when this box fell on me,” she explained, pointing at a cardboard box on the floor.

Well, mystery solved.

“Alright,” I said with a shrug. The guys and I began heading back to the club room.

I could hear Hironaka sigh. “Oh, no, I don’t need any help, thanks for the offer,” she muttered sarcastically, clearly annoyed.

Yeah, gal, this isn’t really our problem, and I’m sure you can manage by yourself… Wait, what did she say? Help…? I halted, thought about it for a couple of seconds, and turned around. I headed back to the storage room, where Hironaka was crouching down, picking up the papers. Looking at her for a second, I also crouched down, and began gathering the papers.

It took some seconds for Hironaka to finally notice my presence. “Eh?”

“…to be honest, we’re the ones needing the help,” I explained, keeping my gaze on the papers.

Hironaka kept looking at me for a while, until she got back to work. “…how so?”

“Well… You seem to know a lot of people, right?”

I could see her shrugging. “Not really, but I guess I know what you mean.”

Picking up the last few papers, we both stood up, facing each other.

I handed the papers over to her. “We need members.”

“Members?” she asked, taking the papers.

I nodded, slipping my hands into my pockets. “Yeah. Obviously, we’ll all be graduating next spring, and we wouldn’t like to leave that awesome place empty. We want to secure its future, just like all the members before us.”

“Ah, I see…” she muttered, placing her finger on her lips.

“Yeah, so… If you’d bother to look for freshmen who haven’t got anything better to do, and maybe convince them to come and take a look…” I said, glancing elsewhere for a while to find the right words, and then turning back to her. “…we’d really appreciate it.”

“Yup,” I heard Ichiro talking from behind me. Turning around, I found both of my friends standing at the doorway.

Tadaaki nodded. “Remember, the selling points are coffee, 80’s and 90’s popular culture, and hanging out.”

Hironaka looked at us, and turned her gaze to the side, clearly pondering about the request. The following seconds felt painfully long, until she finally turned back to us.

“Alright, I guess I can ask the other class representatives if they know anything,” she said, the guys and I sighing out of relief in chorus. “I’ll be in touch if I find some people.”

“Right, you do that. Thanks,” I said, taking many steps backwards to get out of her way.

She stepped out of the storage room, giving us one last look, before heading off towards the stairs. The guys and I looked at her until she was out of our sight, after which we looked at each other.

“Well, that’s that, then,” Tadaaki nodded with a slight smile.

Ichiro snapped his fingers. “Come on, let’s have some affogato.”

We disappeared back into the club room, now with one of our problems off our minds.

Couple of weeks pass by. It was a history class, and the last class before the lunch break. The teacher was telling us about Europe and how fucked up it was a hundred years ago or so. Or at least I understood as much, since I didn’t really pay attention. But it wasn’t my usual case of indolence, no. I was just restlessly waiting for the lunch break to start. The classroom’s clock seemed to run awfully slow, and my watch caught the same disease. Shit, I really need to find a way to pass my time… Hm, maybe I’ll draw something in my notebook. Let’s see… Huh, what the hell even is this? Some fat guy? He definitely needs a baseball cap, and a moustache. Heh, let’s give him some sick assault rifle as well…

Ding, dong, ding, dong!

And there goes the bell. As the class ended, the students immediately began enjoying their lunch break, some turning to face their friends, and others getting up and making their leave. I wasn’t about to sit around and wonder about it, so I packed my stuff, and stood up.

The teacher was watching our doings for some seconds, until he sighed, fixing his glasses.

“I’d just like to say that I know where some of you are going. I know, it’s not against the rules, but still… Try to stay on your best behavior, alright? And be sure to come back to school right after.”

Only a few guys bothered to look at him, and even fewer bothered to give him an answer, all of them being a quiet and half-assed ‘yes, sir’. Those guys received the nastiest glances from our class’s girls. Can’t blame them. I left the class, immediately heading towards the lobby, while trying my best to dodge the hundreds of students swarming the hallways. Getting my shoes changed, I headed outside.

“Yo, dude, wait up!”

I turned around, finding Tadaaki and Ichiro running after me. As they got to me, we headed out together.

“Man, you disappeared from the classroom fast,” Tadaaki chuckled, a bit winded.

I glanced at him. “Oh, my bad, I completely forgot about you two existing.”

“Or maybe there’s something that made you hurry,” he muttered with a smug grin. “…or someone.”

I was about to give him a piece of my mind, when Ichiro gave us both a light slap on the back.

“Today’s the big day, huh?”

Tadaaki nodded, amused by Ichiro’s enthusiasm.

I, too, nodded, but with a more stern expression. “Just keep yourself in line. The reason it’s not against the rules is because no one has yet to do anything stupid.”

“I’m not a fucking sex maniac, you know…” Ichiro muttered, frowning.

With a frustrated sigh, I pushed his head away from me. “You’re the one smuggling porn mags to the club room!”

Tadaaki was grinning at our argument, when his eyes were drawn to another group of students. “Yo, those guys are going there, too. Let’s join them.”

Joining the group, we headed to the street, walking in a specific direction. I glanced behind me, watching the school building slowly disappear from my view. While looking around, I managed to spot a few other groups of students, all from our school, and all heading in the same direction.

Today was a special day for many of the students of Kasumimashita High School. Well, to the boys, anyway. Let me explain: yearly, the Sakuragaoka High School holds a school marathon. So, what does that have to do with us? Well, the marathon route happens to go near our school. Only a twenty minute walk to the west. Due to this fact, the senior boys of our school have a decade old tradition of skipping school and going to watch the marathon. Or well, not the marathon itself, but the sweaty girls in their gym uniforms. Understandable reason, sure, but it gets better: there goes a rumor that one of our boys actually managed to get a girlfriend from Sakuragaoka. And man, when that rumor began spreading, the attendance numbers tripled. Looking at the many student groups currently walking on the street, I’d assume there’s about 30 of us or so.

Of course, both our school and Sakuragaoka came to know of this ‘tradition’ very quickly. But, since our school’s boys hadn’t done anything overly bad, and had kept the catcalling at minimum, both schools decided to let it be, since we weren’t being overly obtrusive. Though, I bet there’ll be a day when someone of us fucks up really bad, and the schools have to take action. If and when that happens, I hope that guy gets hanged by his balls to a flagpole. As I mentioned, this is the tradition of our school’s seniors, but I still managed to spot a couple of underclassmen among the groups. Actually, I also spotted a couple of girls… It only took me a second to connect the dots, and it suddenly got very hot. Man, maybe I’m the one who should keep himself in line.

It wasn’t long until we got to the road along which the marathon route went. There wasn’t any official place for us to settle, so everyone scattered along the road. There was an unwritten rule to keep a good three meter distance to the road, and everyone seemed to respect it. Tadaaki had heard of a small park along the road, so we headed there. Luckily, the place was empty, though it soon got swarmed by at least a dozen of our school’s students, us included. We had a good view of the whole stretch of road, there was a fence we could lean to, and the park had a vending machine. Man, this place is perfect!

There was still some time until the show, so the students spread around the park, passing the time. The guys and I headed for a vacant bench, throwing our bags next to it and taking a seat. Well, save for Ichiro, that is.

“I think I’ll go buy a can of coffee, you guys want one?”

I dug a coin out of my pocket, and tossed it to him. “Sure.”

“Me three,” Tadaaki said, also throwing him a coin.

As Ichiro headed off towards the vending machine, Tadaaki turned to look at me. I don’t like that smug expression…

“As I said before, I presume there’s a particular reason you were so eager to come here?”

I glanced at him, thinking for a bit, and then nodding. “Yeah, you got that right.”

He snorted amusedly, turning his gaze towards the road. “Did you stop to think what she’ll think if she spots you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe something, maybe not. It doesn’t really worry me, since she’s a very forgiving gal,” I muttered with a shrug.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Tadaaki looking at me. The longer he kept doing it, the wider his smile got. Just what the hell is that guy thinking…?

“Have you confessed to her already?” he suddenly asked.

I flinched in surprise, turning to look at him. I tried to retort with something, but no words came out. So, I just sat there dumbfounded, my mouth open like an idiot.

Tadaaki chuckled. The chuckle wasn’t a mocking one, it actually sounded sympathetic.

“It was all over your face, it wasn’t hard to figure it out.”

…Shit, that guy can read me like an open book, huh. Slowly closing my mouth, I turned my head forward, looking at the students messing around the park. We sat in silence for a few seconds. Well, he’s already figured it out, so I might as well be honest about it.

“…I tried, once. Last summer, in fact,” I told him.

He nodded slightly. “…but?”

“…but…” I continued, lowering my head. “…I just couldn’t say it.”

Tadaaki smiled slightly, sighing out of amusement. “Yeah, well, that’s how it usually goes.”

I thought for a bit, and then turned to face him. “You’ve been with the ladies. Is there any tips you can give me?”

I’ve heard of Tadaaki attending some house parties from time to time, and he has managed to get to know some ladies better, if you know what I mean, so I hoped he could give me some words of advice.

“…They were only one-night stands, but yeah,” he muttered, scratching his cheek with a slight embarrassment. “No, I can’t. Those gals were the complete opposite of Hirasawa. You know, delinquent gals. Most of them were drunk, too.”

I quickly understood my how stupid my question was. “Ah, right…”

Tadaaki bumped my arm with his elbow. “But hey, you’ve known each other for years. It’s not like you have a time limit or anything. Just take things slowly, no need to rush it. Give her some subtle flirts, just to give her the idea that you’re interested… Just make sure that both you and the Hirasawa gal feel comfortable about it.”

I kept looking at him for a few seconds, until I grinned. “So, you can give tips after all, huh?”

“What tips?” I could suddenly hear Ichiro asking.

We turned to look at our side, finding Ichiro walking back to the bench, carrying three cans of coffee. Ah, shit…

“Tips about making some good coffee with an ordinary coffeemaker,” Tadaaki said all of a sudden.

“Huh,” Ichiro muttered, giving us our cans. “How, exactly?”

“Well, the trick is to rinse the filter with water first,” he explained, opening his can.

Ichiro looked at him, puzzled, until he opened his own can. “…Even I knew that.”

“Yeah, but this guy here didn’t,” Tadaaki snickered, giving me a tap on the shoulder.

I just chuckled nervously, opening the can and drinking many gulps out of it. Phew, Tadaaki’s good at coming up with lies… Wait, rinsing the filter with water? I actually didn’t know that. Due to that, we spent the following minutes talking about coffee, whilst drinking the said drink.

As we finished our drinks, we dropped the empty cans under the bench, since none of us had the strength to get up. Looking around the park, I saw the students gathered in different groups. One of the groups was leaning against the fence facing the road, eagerly waiting. Speaking of them, one of them suddenly flinched, and turned to face the park.

“Hey! The first ones are coming!”

Following this, every single student in the park gathered at the fence. Not that there was any danger of losing the best spots, but the guys and I still hurried to get in the middle. Heh, it might’ve been a sight to behold; dozen of students leaning against a fence, all anxiously looking to their left. Squinting my eyes, I could make out some girls down the road, approaching us steadily but surely. As the girls got closer and we could make out their features better, the whispering began.

Man, check out that brunette.”

“Holy hell, how can she run with that kind of a rack?”

“You think if I throw my phone number on the ground, someone will pick it up?”

That’s as much as I expected from my school’s hormone junkies. But what I didn’t expect was the fact that they were only whispers. I was standing only meters away, and I still had trouble hearing most of them. It’s great to know that the unwritten rules are respected.

Since I know a bit about Sakuragaoka, I could connect the color of the girls’ uniforms to their year. Juniors kept glancing at us, confused, and maybe a bit scared, too. The seniors, on the other hand, didn’t seem to pay us any mind, since they’ve probably gotten used to this. Actually, I swear I could see some of them sigh out of frustration. Hopefully none of them memorize my face, since I’ll have to attend their school festival in a month. Wait, shit, didn’t Tsumugi tell me about some of them knowing about me? Maybe I should slip out of the view a bit…

Having watched the marathon procession for a while, I had made some deductions: The first ones were clearly members of the Athletics Club or some other sports club. The ones following didn’t seem to be as fast, so maybe they just happen to be more athletic, though not due to club activities. And then came your average students. Hundreds of them, in fact. Girls of different shapes and sizes, all doing as well as you’d expect from an average teenager. It made me think, who would be the last ones? Or, actually; who would be the last? Holy shit, just the thought of being that poor bastard made me want to turn on my heels and head straight home. Maybe I should stick around to find out.

I quickly realized I was once again overanalyzing everything, so I tried to relax a bit, and just look at the girls running by. I guess it was kinda weird, bunch of guys staring at girls, but not saying a thing. Few of the girls decided to tease us by waving and making cute poses, probably hoping to get a reaction out of us. Regardless, the will was strong, and the guys stayed silent, though most of them looked like they wanted to confess their love there and then. Smirking at the situation, I once again directed my gaze at the road. Huh, that one girl actually seems kinda cute…

“Eiji-chan!”

…Oh, my mistake, she’s not so cute after all. Well, luckily there’s many more to look at…

“Don’t you try to ignore me, you idiot!”

With a sigh, I slowly and carefully turned to look at the girl. She had come to a halt. She was frowning and clenching her fists, looking daggers at me all the while. Well, I guess that’s what you’d expect from your own sister.

“What’s up, Tamiko?” I asked her, pretending not to know the reason for her anger.

It made her even angrier. “Come here, I’ll tell you what’s up!”

I shook my head with a grin. “Can’t. I need to keep a three-meter gap, you see.”

She was puffing her cheeks annoyedly, probably plotting something against me. Snickering quietly, I realized to look around. Tamiko’s and my quarreling had caught the attention of both the girls and boys. I managed to suppress the anxiety inside me by reminding myself that Tamiko’s just my sister, and I’ll most likely have to explain that fact to the other boys. Nothing wrong with tha—

“Eiji-kun?”

Swallowing out of nervousness, I turned to find the origin of the voice. Not that I didn’t recognize the voice. It belonged to, you guessed it, Ui. She had stopped next to my sister, and had turned to face me, clearly puzzled. She eyed me for a while, until her gaze began wandering along all the confused boys glued to the fence, temporarily stopping as she recognized Tadaaki among them, and then returning to me. Timorously grinding my teeth, I tried to come up with something to say, when I happened to notice two more girls stopping in front of me, them being Jun and Azusa, both as confused as Ui. God fucking damn it, I had a plan in case Ui spotted me, but not a plan for those two nor my sister. Besides, this is just too much attention for my taste.

I raised my hand. “Y-Yo, Ui-san! What brings you here?” The nervous greeting was accompanied by a half-assed smile.

Ui didn’t seem to care about my shitty joke, staying just as puzzled as she was before.

“I was just about to ask you the same. Why are you here?”

I didn’t even have time to answer, when Azusa sighed, taking a step forward. “Isn’t it obvious? He’s partaking in his school’s seniors’ stupid tradition.”

She then pointed her hand at us. From the corner of my eye, I could see most of the guys blushing in embarrassment and shrinking a bit. All of them probably fantasized about a girl stopping and talking to them, but none of them were actually prepared for it.

“Ah, I completely forgot about that,” Ui realized, and once again turned to face me. “Eiji-kun, you really shouldn’t be skipping school.”

Her face was all smiles, but I recognized that strict tone of voice. That’s stage two of Ui’s anger meter. Stage three usually comes up when I ignore stage two. Only time I’ve seen the stage four was during the sleepover, when I did that stupid climbing trick. I’ve never seen stage five, and that’s just fine by me, I like being alive, thank you very much. Though, something about it made me relax a bit, and I was actually able to smile.

I waved my hand. “Sorry, but the beginning of the second period has been really tiresome, I just needed some time off.”

My bullshitting made Ui chuckle a bit. Phew, stage three averted…

“No, Eiji-kun’s just being a pervert,” Jun quipped with a grin.

I clicked my tongue. “Don’t think too much of yourself.”

I noticed Azusa glancing around her, and becoming restless. “…I think we should keep going, we’re gathering too much attention like this.”

“Ah, right,” Tamiko nodded, and the both of them began moving, Jun soon joining them.

“Well, it was fun meeting you like this. Bye, Eiji-kun!” Ui bid me farewell, waving her hand as she gave chase to her friends.

I answered the gesture. “Yeah, see ya.”

I watched them as they jogged down the road, soon disappearing among the mass of other girls. My smile slowly disappeared as I thought about it. Many, many of Sakuragaoka’s students saw them talking to me. I really hope they can explain their way out of the situation before the rumors start spreading. Or, I guess there’s already some rumors, but this would only feed them… Speaking of unwanted attention, I finally realized to look at the guys around me. All of them were eyeing me, both surprised and confused. Well, save for Tadaaki, who was trying his best to hide his shitty grin. I bet all the guys had a load of questions for me, but Ichiro was the first one to talk. Though, by talking, I mean grabbing me by the shoulders and shouting like a maniac.

“What the fuck was that just now!?”

“R-Relax, man,” I said, trying to squirm out of his grasp.

However, he wasn’t planning to let me go anytime soon. “I won’t fucking relax! Not after that! Who the hell were those girls!?”

Sure, at first it was funny, but now I was getting really tired of his shit, so I grabbed his arms, pulling them off my shoulders.

“Just some friends, nothing special,” I muttered, frowning unamusedly.

It clearly wasn’t enough, as he charged forward for another grab. “Just some friends!? They were calling you by your first name, you fucking—!”

“E-fucking-nough!” I yelled, giving Ichiro a kick to the ankle, making him fall flat on his stomach. “Shut the fuck up!”

He tried to get up, but I placed my foot on his back, pushing him back to the ground. He turned his head sideways and looked up to see me, probably to retort with something, but fell silent as he saw my frustrated face. I was really, really tired of this.

He kept looking at me for a while, until he directed his gaze elsewhere, muttering: “…alright, just… let me catch my breath for a second.”

Carefully, I removed my leg from his back. Ichiro stayed on the ground for some seconds, until he slowly started getting up, being careful to not make any sudden movements. While he did that, I turned to look at the other boys, who were staring at us dumbstruck.

“The hell are you dickweeds looking at? This has nothing to do with you,” I snarled at them, still annoyed by Ichiro’s outbursts.

Whatever questions they had in their minds disappeared. One by one, they turned back towards the road, though glancing at us from the corner of their eyes from time to time.

Snickering at the situation, Tadaaki walked over to us, and grabbed Ichiro by his armpit, helping him up.

Seemingly embarrassed and a bit sheepish, Ichiro raised his gaze towards me. “Just… Can you at least explain?”

I looked at him, shrugged, and turned around, walking to the same bench we were sitting on earlier. The guys followed me, and we took a seat. Ichiro was eagerly waiting for me to talk.

I thought about what to say, and sighed. “What’s there even to tell? I already told you, they’re just my friends.”

“Yeah, but…” Ichiro started, took a second to calm down, and continued: “…you can understand me, right? I mean, that all-girls school has a legendary status, and—”

“According to who?” I cut him off, frowning a bit.

He answered my frown. “To everyone. And this time I’m serious.”

I turned to look at Tadaaki, who gave an approving nod. “Yeah, he ain’t bullshitting. That school’s one of the most highly regarded establishments in this town, and being an all-girls school, it has gained a legendary status amongst the male students. Not just in our school, mind you.”

Oh, is that actually so…? Guess I’ve gotten so used to the place, I don’t think much of it. Okay, I admit it; if I hadn’t met Ui, I’d also see the place as legendary or something.

I finally gave up. “Okay, I get your point. So?”

“…So, how do you even know those girls? I mean, I know your sister goes to that school, and I’d understand if they were just your sister’s friends, but…” He stopped for a bit to gather his thoughts. “You know, the first name basis and stuff.”

It felt so stupid explaining him the stuff that was so ordinary for me. Well, this was a long time coming, and it’s going as well as I expected, so I might as well go through with it.

“I’ll give you a chance to figure it out yourself. You’ve seen them before, you know,” I told him, and tapped my head with my finger. “Try to remember.”

“Wha…?” Ichiro muttered, and fell into deep thought. He soon emerged with widened eyes. “Oh, shit! You… You mean back in middle school, after the winter holidays? Those two girls… They were them?”

I pointed at him with a nod. “Right on.”

With a surprised snort, he turned to look at the road. “Hell, I had completely forgotten about it.”

With a flinch, he seemed to recall something else, and turned to face me once again. “Wait, what about that one girl? The one with the… hair ball thingies?”

He mimicked Jun hairstyle, using his hands as the quilts, which made me grin a bit. I gave him an approving nod.

“Yeah, you saw her back at the Winter Festival. You actually talked to her.”

“Wait, really? I just thought my head was messed up after that fight…” he muttered, finally lowering his hands.

Tadaaki seemed to find the conversation amusing. That’s probably why he decided to add fuel to the fire.

“You know, the whole story’s actually interesting, if you’d care to listen.”

Ichiro raised his eyebrows in surprise, while I just frowned. “Or if I’d care to tell it.”

However, he had already done the irreversible, and Ichiro was eagerly waiting for me to tell the story. Story about how I met Ui, how I met Jun, how I spent the night at Ui’s house, how I visited the Sakuragaoka’s festival, how I came to know more and more of the students, the times we spent together, all the fun we had, all behind Ichiro’s back. And so I ended up telling him, though leaving out a few details, including my personal feelings.

It took me a while to finish the story. In between, we decided to grab some sodas, which were finished by the end of my tale. Ichiro was staring at his empty can, quietly processing the story by himself.

After a painfully long silence, he finally snorted. “Shit, what a double life you’ve been living.”

“Well, not exactly a double life, it hasn’t really been a secret recently. I just haven’t mentioned it, since—” I said, until Ichiro cut me off.

“Yeah, I know, since I couldn’t take it.”

I slowly shook my head. “W-Well, not exactly.”

He snickered with a sigh, tilting his head backwards and looking at the sky. “Don’t bullshit me. You’ve had your secret talks with Tadaaki, but always change the subject when I come around.”

He then turned to face me with a sorry smile. “Don’t worry, I get it. I… understand your intentions, seeing the scene I made previously and all.”

I chuckled. “Yeah. I bet those guys will be talking about it a lot…”

I fell silent as I directed my gaze towards the fence, with no one to be seen. The boys had disappeared during my story. I wondered about it, when I realized to look at the road. Only a few girls running, those must be the last ones. Shit, just how long did I talk?

Tadaaki, too, seemed to realize the time. “Ah, looks like we missed most of the show.”

With a grin, Ichiro threw his can away as hard as he could, and jumped on his feet. “Fuck it, I already got enough excitement for one day.”

Tadaaki and I stood up too, and grabbed our bags. Though, we were unclear where to go next.

“The classes have already started, so we can’t go back to school, that’s for sure,” Tadaaki noted, tucking the bag under his armpit and slipping his hands into his pockets.

I massaged my chin, thinking for a bit, until I snapped my fingers. “Alright, then. I say we go to the—”

“Eiji-kun, Eiji-kun!”

The frantic sounding call made us all look at the road, finding Ui. She was out of breath, and clearly very worried about something. Giving a glance at my friends, I walked to the fence, leaning over it a bit.

“Huh, what is it?”

“Have you seen my sis?” she asked, winded.

I shook my head. “No, why? What’s going on?”

“She’s disappeared!”

My mind began racing. Yui disappeared…? Maybe it’s nothing, I think it’s nothing, I fucking hope it’s just nothing, but… Shit, I still got to help her.

“Something urgent came up, see ya guys tomorrow!” I yelled at my friends, before hopping over the fence, and making my way to the road.

As I got to Ui, she cocked her head. “Uh, are you coming to look for her with me?”

I nodded. “Yeah, since you sounded pretty worried.”

She gave me a slight smile for an answer, before she started jogging again, me following right after her. The girls running past us gave us puzzled looks, but I tried my best to not let it bother me.

We only managed to get down the road, when Ui spotted something: Yui’s club. They also seemed to be looking for Yui. Shit, it’s most likely nothing, just Yui goofing around as usual… Fuck, I should stop watching those late-night crime movies, they’re messing with my sense of rationality. Ui called out for the club, getting their attention, and we ran up to them.

“Have you found my sister?” she asked them.

However, we only received head shakes for an answer. Damn, if even those gals don’t know where she is, then we’re in some deep shit… Unless Ui has some ideas. And sure enough, she seemed to think about something.

“…Jun-chan said that she disappeared before the checkpoint, right?” she asked.

Ritsu nodded with a sigh. “Yup, that’s when we noticed her disappearance.”

This was enough information for Ui, as she pointed her finger up determinedly. “Ah, then I bet she must be there!

‘There’ didn’t mean anything to me, since I didn’t even know where the said checkpoint was. But who else knows Yui better than Ui? She began walking in a specific direction, and the rest of us followed her. Though I was walking ahead of them, I still could feel Yui’s club staring at me. It didn’t take long for them to start asking questions.

“This guy again, huh?” Ritsu asked, sounding a bit amused.

I wasn’t as pleased about it. “I’m going to tattoo my name on your palm if you won’t start using it soon.”

She, however, didn’t seem to mind my threat, taking it only as a joke. “Just kidding. But seriously, Eiji-san, why are you here?”

I glanced at her over my shoulder. “Tradition.”

“Eh, tradition…? Oh, you mean you’re with those other guys, perving on the side of the road?” she asked.

“…I guess so,” I muttered, facing forward.

Next up was Mio’s turn to ask questions: “Shouldn’t you currently be at school?”

“Yes, Eiji-kun. It’s not good to be skipping classes,” Ui added, even though she didn’t have any objections about it just minutes ago.

I snorted and made vague gestures with my hand. “As I said before, it’s been really tiresome for the past week, so even if I went to class, I wouldn’t get anything done. Hell, I’d probably fall asleep right away.”

“Some things never change, huh…” Mio muttered under her breath, trying to mask it with a sigh. Even though I heard it, I didn’t care to comment on it.

“Ah, it must be so exciting, skipping classes and going to do something dicey,” Tsumugi suddenly said, sounding a bit too excited.

I quickly turned to look at her, and sure enough, her eyes were sparkling. I mean, yeah, she’s a millionaire’s daughter who was raised to be a proper lady, but still, being excited about skipping school…?

I shook my head. “Yeah, well, not really. And I don’t really know what’s so dicey about all this.”

Ritsu shrugged sarcastically. “Gee, I don’t know… Maybe eyeing school girls in their gym uniforms?”

“Eh?” Ui said, slowing down a bit, but picking up the pace right after. She turned to face me, confused. “Was… Was that all it was about?”

“Huh? Uh, well, yeah, kinda,” I muttered, scratching my cheek. “Why? What did you think it was?”

“W-Well, I just thought you boys were cheering us on…” she explained, having blushed a bit.

God damn it, of course she wouldn’t have realized it, she’s too pure. No wonder she took it so lightly when she saw me earlier today. And now that she understands it, I couldn’t help but turn my head away in embarrassment.

“Guess there’s no changing a young man’s nature,” I heard Tsumugi remarking, quietly giggling.

The following seconds felt awkwardly quiet, until Ui finally spoke: “…Don’t partake in those kinds of shenanigans again, Eiji-kun. Okay?”

I’m not sure whether she wanted to give me a proper lecture or not, but I guess me being embarrassed about it seemed to be enough for her. Thank god that gal is quick to forgive.

Giving her a quick glance from the corner of my eye, I resumed looking at the side of the street. “Yeah, no danger of that happening, it was a once-in-a-year thing.”

And so we continued on walking, the atmosphere being a bit too awkward for my taste. At first, we tried asking Ui where she was leading us, but every time she just answered with ‘You’ll see’. As we wouldn’t get a proper answer out of her, the girls began talking amongst themselves, while I just kept quiet, looking at the passing scenery. That’s how it usually goes with these gals. I noticed that we were heading south, and after a while, I actually began recognizing our surroundings. I had a good feeling where Ui would be leading us.

Well, I was half-right, at least. We ended up on the street where the Hirasawas live, though we didn’t stop at their house, but, to my surprise, kept going. A few houses later, we stopped at a certain house. At first, I didn’t recognize it, but it all came back to me when I read the nameplate: Ichimonji. Oh, right, this is where that nice old lady lives, the one who’s like a grandma for Yui and Ui. I first met her a few months ago, and have seen her a few times since then, when she’s happened to be outside just as I’ve walked along this street to Ui’s house. Ui rang the doorbell, and we were soon greeted by both the old lady, and Yui. God damn, Ui was right!

Yui, bowing apologetically, sheepishly explained about how she fell and scratched her knee, and about how the old lady happened to be passing by just as it happened, so they headed inside to get Yui a bandage. Fair enough, but then Yui decided to take a break, maybe eat a few snacks, and completely forgot about the passage of time. That’s the Yui-like goofiness I was expecting.

Since I was leaning against the fence, she noticed me only as she realized to look around a bit more. “Eiji-kun? What are you doing here?”

“Ah, Eiji-kun helped us in your search, since he was worried about you,” Ui explained, trying to paint me as some sort of a saint.

I crossed my arms, glancing elsewhere indifferently. “Nah, not really. I knew Yui-san would be fine, I was more worried about you worrying.”

“O-Oh, is that so…?” Ui muttered.

…Now that I think about it, I could’ve phrased that better. Eh, whatever, I guess.

To my surprise, Yui bowed a second time, this time for me, and me only. “Well, thank you, Eiji-kun, for worrying about my sister.”

Flustered a bit, I couldn’t do anything but sheepishly scratch the back of my head. “Uh, sure, don’t mention it…”

Some amused murmurs could be heard from the girls. Ui was smiling at her sister’s gesture. After a bit of standing around, she turned on her heels.

“I need to go back to school to report that we found sis.”

“Huh? Oh, alright,” I said and stopped leaning against the wall.

Ui was about to start running off, until she thought of something, and turned to look at me. “Ah, Eiji-kun, I have an idea! You can wait at our house, the classes end earlier than normal today.”

I turned to look at the said house, which was just down the street. “Okay, sounds good.”

Cocking her head with a smile, she began jogging away. “Take your time getting to the finish line!” she yelled to the club before picking up speed.

We watched as she slowly disappeared from our view. That’s when I finally processed her words, and turned to face the girls.

“Ah, yeah, you’re still in the middle of your marathon, right?” I asked.

I received nods for an answer. Actually, they seemed to have forgotten about it, and only now realizing the situation.

I threw my bag over my shoulder, and I couldn’t help but smirk. “I bet you’ll be the last ones.”

Ritsu just shrugged. “Yeah, probably, but what can you do?”

Mio, on the other hand, seemed terrified by the idea, judging by her sudden flinch. Sure, I could just stay here and continue teasing them, but maybe that’s enough for today. So, I slipped my other hand into my pocket, and began walking towards the Hirasawa residence.

“Well, good luck, gals. Later,” I said my goodbyes to them.

They answered my goodbye. It didn’t take too long for them to start messing around as usual, as their laughs and quarrels could clearly be heard. Now that’s a tight bunch of friends, I’ll give you that. Maybe even tighter than the guys and I. Though, I’m not sure how long it’ll last. This is our third and last year in high school. After this, we’ll most likely split up… The thought alone depresses me. Maybe I shouldn’t think too much about it.

I got to the house. The door was unlocked, which wasn’t anything new to me. I’ve tried to give Ui lectures about locking the doors, but she has always told me that there’s no need to do so, since this neighborhood is so peaceful. Well, hopefully the Hirasawas have comprehensive insurance. Kicking my shoes off, I climbed up the stairs to the living room. All the lights were off, which was just fine by me. Throwing my bag next to the couch, I walked to it, crashing on top of it. Sure, I could read something from the bookshelf to pass the time, but right now I felt a bit tired from all the running and walking. I’ll just take a quick nap…

I spent a whole hour pondering Tadaaki’s advice, before finally falling asleep.

Chapter Text

A few days had already passed since the marathon. The classes were over, and the guys and I were hanging out in the club room, as usual. We were sitting on the couches, and the two dudes were leaning towards the coffee table, eyeing the thing on top of it. Their reaction caused me to sheepishly look elsewhere.

“…Where the hell did you get these?” Ichiro finally asked after a long-lasting silence.

I scratched my cheek, looking at the coffee table from the corner of my eye. “My former employer gave them to me.”

Tadaaki frowned a bit, puzzled. “Pretty weird thing to give to a part-time employee.”

I guess their reaction was justified. After all, on top of the coffee table was a box – full of sweets, cakes and pastries of different kinds. All of them looked fancy, too fancy to just ‘give away’ to a former summer employee. But it was the truth. Well, almost. I woke up very early today, and since I couldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to head off to school early and make myself some fancy coffee to keep me awake. On my way there, I happened to bump into Tsumugi, also on her way to school. After some casual chit-chat, she handed me over that box of sweets as a gift. Though it was a confusing situation, I accepted it, and took it to the club room, storing it in the back of the fridge. And now that the classes were over, I thought it’d be a good time to open that box. The contents took us all by surprise.

Ichiro took one of the pastries, inspecting it from all sides. “Shit, this is the kind of stuff they feed to the royalty.”

Not wanting to explain the situation any further, I stood up, and walked over to the kitchen area. “Well don’t eat them, then.”

“H-Huh? No, it’s not that, I’m just surprised, that’s all!” he stuttered in a haste, and after admiring the pastry for a bit more, he took a bite out of it. “…Damn, this is good.”

“Hm, that strawberry one with chocolate stripes looks tasty…” Tadaaki muttered to himself.

I sighed amusedly, opening a cabinet and looking at our collection of coffee beans. “At least wait until I’m done with the coffee, you fat fucks. I bet they’ll be even better with some.”

Let’s see, now… Water Avenue is always nice, but it has kinda lost its freshness. Java Pura maybe? Though, I’m not sure how the flavors would combine. How about Tanzanian Peaberry with its sweetness…? Hm, so much to choose from, but nothing to choose… Maybe I should ask the guys from their opini—

My thought process was cut off when my phone began vibrating, meaning someone was calling me. I dug out my phone, checking the caller. To my surprise, it was Yui. Huh, can’t remember the last time she called me. What’s this about, now?

“Yo, Tadaaki. Can you take care of the coffee?” I asked him, showing him my vibrating phone.

He seemed to understand it. “Ah, sure.”

We walked past each other as he headed to the kitchen area, while I went outside the club room, to the hallway. Before closing the door, I glanced at Ichiro, who was too busy munching on the pastry to care. Well, not that he should care, since he already knows about Ui and the others. But he has a bad habit of eavesdropping on phone calls. I answered the call.

“What’s u—”

“Why, Eiji-kun!?” Yui yelled, cutting me off.

I had to retract the phone from my ear to protect my hearing. “What? What are you talking abo—?”

“Why did you take our snacks!?” she cried out, her voice being a mixture of shock and sorrow.

A bit confused, I scratched the back of my head. “What the hell are you talking about? Tsumugi-san gave those to me.”

My explanation wasn’t enough for Yui, who continued on with her whining. “Well you shouldn’t have taken them! Now we have nothing but some old cookies from the cupboard!”

Dumbstruck, and maybe a bit amused, I was trying to come up with something to say, when another sorrowful voice could be heard from the phone: “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for Mugi-chan’s snacks!” That… sounded like Sawako.

A drop of cold sweat was running down my brow as I was trying to decide between hanging up or teasing with them

That’s enough, you two!” a faint yell could be heard, after which it sounded like the phone was taken from Yui. That was Mio. “Sorry for the disturbance,” she said, ending the call right after.

I was staring at my phone, speechless. Yui’s not one to hold a grudge, but still, I don’t think I should visit the Hirasawa residence for the rest of the week, just in case. Or maybe I could give her a cake as an apology, though I’m not sure what I should apologize for… Still, it was pretty weird for Tsumugi to give me the sweets and snacks she was going to share with her club. Well, it was her decision, so I’m not going to complain about it. Which reminds me, I hope neither of those knuckleheads have touched that caramel cupcake.

“Ah, Sugimoto-san?”

Taken by surprise, I turned around, finding Hironaka walking down the hallway.

I waved my hand for a greeting. “Oh, hi. Got any news?”

“Actually, yes, that’s why I came here,” she nodded.

…Wait, she’s not kidding, is she? It took me some seconds to process the situation, until I laughed out of excitement, and opened the club room’s door, nearly kicking it down.

“Guys, we got freshies!” I yelled to my friends, who turned to look at me in confusion.

“No, no, no, no,” Hironaka said in a quick succession, shaking her head and waving her hands in a slight panic. “T-That’s not what I meant, listen to me first!”

The guys stopped what they were doing, and walked over to the door, curious about what Hironaka had to say.

“First off, yes, I heard about a group of freshmen who might be interested in joining your club,” she said.

The guys and I looked at each other, all smiling like a bunch of jackasses.

“…But!” Hironaka yelled in a sudden.

Of course there’s a ‘but’.

“I told them I would check on the club room before bringing them here,” she continued, and turned to look inside the club room with a frown. “Seems like I was right to do so.”

Tadaaki raised his eyebrow. “Huh? What’s wrong with it?”

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong!?” she snapped, taking us by surprise.

She walked a few steps inside the room, and pointed her hand towards one of the couches. “Can’t you see what’s wrong?”

We looked at each other, waiting for one of us to answer, which clearly wasn’t going to happen. It only made Hironaka angrier.

She crouched a bit, pointing under the couch. “What’s this big pile of dust!?”

…Oh.

With a frustrated sigh, Hironaka stood up, looking around a bit closer, frowning all the way. “And what about that rug? Have you ever dusted it?”

…Huh.

“Have you ever cleaned the couches?”

…Hm.

“And why in the world is there a big, dark splatter on that wall!?”

…Yup, that’s about enough of that.

I’m not sure what she was about to point out next, since I walked forward and cut her off. “Alright, alright, we get it. The room needs cleaning, consider it done.”

That didn’t help at all with her fury. “No, I won’t consider it done! Not if I’m not present! I’ve known you three since junior high, and I don’t exactly trust you to handle the task on your own”.

Ichiro scratched his ear, puzzled. “…Uh, you mean, you’re gonna supervise our cleaning?”

“Yes, exactly,” she nodded, after which she dug out her phone to check the time. “…But not right now, I need to attend the student council meeting.”

Phew, gives us some time to relax…

“Actually, I’ll be pretty busy for the rest of the month. A tournament is coming up, so I need to spend as much time with the Athletics Club as possible to help the freshmen,” she explained, sighing a bit.

“Wait, so… You mean, we won’t be cleaning until next month?” Tadaaki asked.

I thought about it, realizing something: “Meaning, the freshmen won’t be coming here before that?”

Hironaka’s anger was gone, replaced by a slight nervousness. “…Well, yes,” she nodded.

As the guys and I sighed out of sorrow in a chorus, she flinched a bit. “D-Don’t be like that, it’s not like the freshmen will go away, they’ll be waiting.”

The following seconds were silent, until Ichiro clicked his tongue. “Ugh, guess she’s right.”

“Yeah. Besides, we can use the time to come up with something to reel them in or something,” Tadaaki muttered, glancing elsewhere thoughtfully.

Eh, guess it’s my turn to agree on this: “…Sure. At least we have something, which is more than we could’ve ever hoped to get by ourselves.”

Hironaka nodded, a slight smile appearing on her face. “Great, thanks for understanding. I… I just want to be sure the freshmen will feel comfortable around here.”

“Yeah, I can see what you mean…” I muttered, looking at the room.

Now that you think about it, it sure is dirty. Maybe we’ve just gotten used to it, so we haven’t really noticed it before. Well, we’re gonna be leaving this place next spring, so cleaning isn’t a bad idea.

“Alright, then. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” Hironaka said, heading to the door to make her leave.

All of a sudden, Tadaaki snapped his fingers, and Hironaka stopped. “Hold on just a second.”

He then walked over to the coffee table, picking up the box of sweets, and returning to us. He showed the contents of the box to Hironaka.

“Pick one, as a reward,” he offered.

She seemed as surprised as Ichiro and I. “O-Oh? Uh, sure…”

After a few seconds of pondering, she decided to pick a soft jelly biscuit. She then gave a small bow for thanks, and with a wave for goodbye, finally left the club room. I could hear her skipping the stairs up as I closed the door, after which I turned to look at Tadaaki, who was setting the box down back on the coffee table. I couldn’t help but smirk.

“Real smooth, man.”

“Had to express our gratitude somehow,” she said with a snort, heading to the kitchen area to resume the coffee making. “Besides, she was quite mad about this room’s condition. Hopefully that’ll calm her down.”

“Not sure if a biscuit will do the trick…” I muttered, crashing on the couch.

“I wouldn’t rule it out, these are pretty damn good,” Ichiro noted, popping another pastry into his mouth.

I was about to tell him to cut the snacking off, but then decided to just let it be. Instead, I thought about it a bit, and leaned over to pick the caramel cupcake I was eyeing earlier. I took a bite, and my eyes widened a bit.

“…Hm, you’re right.”

A week went by. As a precaution, I decided it was for the best to not visit the Hirasawa residence during that time, just in case Yui was still mad about the sweets. Of course, I told Ui about it on the phone, just so she wouldn’t have to worry. She seemed to understand the situation, a bit of amusement in her voice. And now that a week had passed, I decided to visit the Hirasawa residence again. But, just in case, I stopped by the grocery store to buy a bag of Yui’s favorite strawberry-chocolate candies. If she’s still mad, these will surely calm her down. It was already dark by the time I got to the Hirasawa residence. Regardless, Ui still welcomed me inside. I wonder if she’d do that if I dropped by in the middle of the night?

“It’s a bit too late for tea, so I prepared some juice and fruits instead,” she explained as we walked up the stairs.

Gal, you could prepare me a glass of tap water and I still wouldn’t complain.

“Sounds good,” I said.

We got to the living room, spotting a plate full of sliced fruit on the coffee table, and glasses of juice, just as she said. I also found Yui, lazing around on the couch. No, actually… She wasn’t lazing around as usual, but seemed to be in deep thought. Well, that’s something you don’t see every day.

“Yo,” I greeted her to get her attention.

She finally noticed my presence. “Oh, Eiji-kun. Hello.” And right after that, she fell into deep thought once again.

Ui noticed my confusion, so she explained: “Sis and her friends decided to each write some new lyrics.”

“Yup, because we can’t use the club room for a while,” Yui added, staring at the ceiling while laying on her back.

“Oh, that sucks…” I muttered, walking to the coffee table and taking a seat at my usual spot. “Any progress with the lyrics?”

She reached over the armrest to pick something up from the floor. “Ah, actually, yes, I’ve already have something done.” Wait, you do?

She handed me a sheet of paper. I leaned in to take it, examining it. The first thing that caught my eye was the title: Rice as a Side Dish. I’m… not really sure how to react to that. And the lyrics themselves, well, were about food. Food that goes well with rice, that is. Ramen, udon, yakisoba, takoyaki… And the chorus simply went ‘One, two, three, four, rice!’

“Well, what do you think?” Yui asked, picking a piece of fruit from the plate.

Ui leaned a bit closer, that same old shine in her eyes whenever she’s praising her sister. “They’re really imaginative, right?”

I opened my mouth to voice my opinion, but accidentally burst into laughter, which was something I was trying to hold back. The girls looked at each other, confused. I managed to calm down relatively quickly, though still chuckling quietly.

“Sorry, sorry, it’s just… This is really fitting for you, Yui-san,” I explained with an amused sigh. “Imaginative? Sure, to say the least.”

Yui cocked her head, puzzled. “Uh, so…?”

Ah, I guess she wants me to tell my opinion about the lyrics. I once again turned to look at the paper, still smiling like some idiot.

“…So, the lyrics themselves? They’re actually kinda good,” I said, setting the paper down on the coffee table. “I like unique lyrics, as long as they fit the song. With the right composition, I bet those lyrics will sound great.”

“O-Oh, is that so…?” she muttered, glancing elsewhere sheepishly, but still seemingly glad.

With an amused snort, I grabbed myself a glass of juice, and popped one of the fruit slices into my mouth. Sweet and refreshing.

“Ui and I are actually trying to come up with new lyrics,” Yui told me. “We’re going to spend the night working on them.”

We? Wasn’t this thing between you and your club? Or, well, I guess I should’ve expected this.

Ui seemed to think about something, until she turned to look at me. “Eiji-kun, you’re a great singer. Maybe you could help us?”

I sipped my juice, and swirled the glass gently. “It doesn’t work that way, you know… Just because I’m great with words, doesn’t mean that I know how to come up with them.”

“A-Ah, I see,” she muttered, probably thinking how silly her question was.

…Well, it’s not like I have anything better to do. “…but, I guess I can be a beta reader of some sort. I’m not an expert, mind, but I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life, so I know a good set of lyrics when I see one.”

“Oh, well, in that case!” Ui said excitedly, but soon realized something. “…But, I wouldn’t want to keep you here that long. It would be bad if you’d feel tired in school tomorrow.”

While she was talking, I picked up another slice of fruit, fiddling with it. “Nah, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow’s morning classes include chemistry, anyway. I’d rather stay home sleeping than attend that.”

“Eiji-kun…” Ui muttered, frowning.

I snapped my fingers. “Alright, how about this: I’ll stay here for an hour, then I’ll head home, and you can text me the lyrics when you’re done with them. Okay?”

I really, really wasn’t looking for another lecture, so I came up with a compromise. It seemed to do the trick, since Ui was smiling once again.

“Okay, that’ll work,” she nodded.

Phew, crisis averted… Oh, I almost forgot about something. I put my hand into my hoodie’s pocket, making sure the thing was still there.

“Yo, Yui-san,” I called the goofy girl lying on the couch. “You’re probably going to need energy with the lyrics. Here.”

From my pocket, I dug out the bag of strawberry-chocolate candies, tossing it over to her. She managed to catch it, and as she realized what it was, her eyes sparkled out of astonishment. She held the bag close to her chest, and cocked her head with the sweetest smile.

“Thank you, Eiji-kun!”

I couldn’t help but answer the smile. “Yeah, don’t mention it.”

Ui, who was observing the situation, was also smiling warmly. These two, they’re really something else. They always manage to make you feel warm and happy. That’s exactly why I love coming here.

As planned, we spent the next hour working on the lyrics, which actually came out pretty good, thanks to Ui. I headed home after an hour had passed, but unlike what I said to Ui, I stayed up late, hitting the hay at a bit past midnight, and sleeping until 10am. Sorry, gal, but no way I’m testing my nerves with that chemistry teaching fucknut.

Hours passed, and the classes were soon over. As usual, the guys and I spent an hour in the club room, drinking coffee, listening to music and just generally hanging out. Tadaaki and Ichiro had both got some money, so we decided to head off to downtown to hang out a bit more. More time passed as we roamed around the shopping district, spending our money on junk food and arcades. A few years ago, we would’ve probably gone to the side alleys, looking for a fight, but not anymore. I’ve fought just about enough in my life, and I bet the guys were thinking the same. Maybe it’s for the best. No, it’s definitely for the best.

As afternoon turned into evening, the sky changed its color from orange to darker shades of purple. Man, it’s sure been a while since the last time the guys and I spent the entire day hanging out outside. We were squatting down in a darkened alley, drinking sodas, and talking about whatever came to mind. Ichiro finished his drink first, throwing the can to the side, and getting up, stretching his neck.

“I think I’ll call it quits today, I didn’t get much sleep last night,” he muttered, groaning.

Tadaaki shrugged. “Well, I thought we could stop by that game store, but you do you, I guess.”

“Yeah, I’ll pass,” Ichiro said, and turned his gaze to the side, muttering: “…Besides, that dickhead’s become edgy. He won’t give me a break if I come home late.”

He’s obviously talking about his father.

I raised an eyebrow. “Hm? Doesn’t he usually just not care?”

Ichiro sighed, throwing his school bag over his shoulder. “That’s how it used to be, but it changed recently. There’s apparently some juvenile gang or something, causing trouble around the town, and that fuckface thinks I’m related to that somehow…”

“Geez, good luck with that…” I muttered, sipping my drink.

“Well, see ya tomorrow,” he bid us goodbye, disappearing around the corner, the sound of his footsteps soon drowning in the noises of the shopping district.

We kept looking at the main street for a while, until Tadaaki gulped the rest of his drink down, letting out a satisfied sigh, and standing up. “What about you? You with me?”

“To the game store? Sure, why not. Maybe I’ll find something good,” I said, drinking the rest of my drink, and tossing the can aside.

With a nod, Tadaaki picked up his bag, and pointed his hand to the left. “Cool. We can cut through here to get there faster…”

However, his voice died down as he noticed something. Actually, I noticed it too. It was my vibrating phone, which I dug out of my pocket.

Tadaaki crossed his arms with a slight smile. “Hirasawa gal, perhaps?”

I clicked my tongue unamusedly. “Almost. It’s her sister.”

It sure was Yui who was calling me. Is it about the lyrics again? Oh well, better answer.

“What’s up?”

“Eiji-kun…” Yui muttered, sounding rather worried.

I showed Tadaaki my confused expression, and turned back to the phone. “Huh? What’s going on?”

“…Come quick, I… I don’t know what to do…”

She… She sounded really worried. Worried and scared. Her voice was almost shaking.

“What? What happened?” I asked her, also getting rather worried.

“I-It’s Ui, she… I…” Yui muttered, paused for some seconds, and continued: “…Please, help me.”

Something snapped in my head.

“H-Hold on, I’m nearby, I’ll come there quick!” I told her, almost panicking, and ended the call.

Tadaaki, of course, noticed that something was wrong, so he stepped closer. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not sure. She… She sounded really worried about something. Something related to Ui-san, and she told me to come quickly and help, and…” I stuttered, making vague movements with my hands as I explained.

Tadaaki cut me off by placing his hand on my shoulder, looking rather serious. “Alright, dude. Calm down, breathe.”

“Yeah, breathe… Shit, it just… caught me off guard…” I muttered, taking many heavy breaths just as instructed, trying my best to get a grip.

“They live just a kilometer or two away, right?” Tadaaki asked, and crouched down to pick up my bag, tossing it over to me. “Let’s get going.”

…Not sure why, but something about his level-headedness helped me to calm down a bit.

I nodded determinedly. “Alright.”

And so we left the side alley, making our way through the darkened, but lively, shopping district at a swift pace, almost running, dodging cars and pedestrians. Just keep calm… It’s just Yui being Yui, it’s probably nothing serious… I fucking hope it’s nothing serious.

Approximately ten minutes later we arrived at the Hirasawa residence. Not wanting to waste any time, I tried my luck with the front door, which was unlocked. Fuck the manners, they’re nothing but trivial right now. As we stepped into the foyer and were kicking off our shoes, I noticed many pairs of shoes on the foyer floor. Wait, so we’re not the only ones here? Ugh, whatever, I don’t have time to think about that. Second later, we rushed up the stairs, finally getting to the living room.

“What the hell’s going on!?” I asked the moment I turned around the corner.

I was met with a group of girls, all looking at me, all equally confused. It was Yui and her club. Tadaaki got upstairs a second later, and we all just stood there, staring at each other in confusion for some seconds. Well, at least until Yui spoke, being as worried as on the phone.

“Ui… Ui caught a cold…”

“…A cold?” Tadaaki repeated after her, not sure what to feel about all this.

I processed the situation, until I sighed, scratching my head. “Man, you should’ve told that on the phone. I thought there was something far more serious going on…”

…Ah, E-Eiji-kun…

Taken by surprise, I directed my gaze towards the kitchen. It was Ui, standing there, and holding a tray full of drinks… No, she wasn’t standing. She was trembling, and sweaty. Shit, she sure has a cold, alright.

“A-And, Tadaaki-san? Welcome. W-Would you like some tea?” she asked with her tired voice.

Trying to tend to her guests, even though she’s clearly sick…? This gal really needs to get her priorities checked. Shit, guess I need to do something.

I dropped my bag on the floor, walking forward, past the other girls. “No, no one needs any tea right now.”

“O-Oh…?” Ui muttered.

As I got to her, I very carefully took the tray off her hands, and set it down on the coffee table. “But you? You sure as hell need some rest.”

She was still holding her hands in front of her, only now realizing the missing tray. “A-Ah, yes… I’m, sorry…”

“Don’t apologize,” I muttered, placing my hands gently on her shoulders, and turning her towards the stairs. “Come on then, up the stairs. Now.”

“O-Okay…” she murmured, slowly making her way to the stairs, and carefully starting to mosey up them.

I walked next to her, keeping the same pace as her, holding my hands on her shoulder as to direct her, and also as a support in case she’d trip. She was breathing heavily and tiredly, and I could feel the heat radiating from her. The walk upstairs took many seconds longer than normally, but she managed to do it. Next, I directed Ui to her bedroom, walking her to the bed, gently making her sit down on it.

“Under the sheets, come on,” I instructed her, keeping my voice calm, and my expression neutral.

Slowly but surely, Ui laid down on the bed, pulling the blanket over her. I nodded, but soon noticed something.

“Ah, guess that ponytail needs to be untied. Turn your head the other way,” I instructed her, and she did just that.

As I untied the yellow string out of her hair, I could hear Ui muttering: “…Sorry for all the trouble, Eiji-kun…”

“What did I just say? Don’t apologize,” I said to her, setting the yellow string aside, and taking a step backwards. “…Now, you’ll probably need a cold rag on the forehead or something.”

“Ah, yes…” she said, and tried to sit up, but I quickly but gently pushed her back down.

I crossed my arms with a sigh. “…Alright, two rules: No apologizing, and no getting up. I’ll handle it.”

“Oh…” she muttered, looking a bit embarrassed. “There’s buckets and towels in the bathroom cabinet.”

“Got it,” I nodded, walking out of the room. “I’ll be right back,” I said before closing the door.

I leaned against the doorframe, keeping my head low, and sighed. I still haven’t fully calmed down, but I managed to keep myself in order, so good for me, I guess. I directed my gaze towards the bathroom door, and was just about to head there, until I heard Tadaaki talking downstairs.

Ah, so you guys went to Yukinokawa, too? No wonder you looked a bit familiar.

Oh, right. I had completely forgotten about bringing him along. Being a socially talented person, it’s no wonder he’d struck a conversation in no time.

Yes, it’s surprising to meet like this,” I could hear Mio answering.

It was followed by Ritsu’s question: “Wasn’t there a third one, too?

“Ah, you mean Ichiro? Yeah, he’s still with us,” Tadaaki confirmed.

“Yeah, that’s the one. Didn’t he try hitting on you once, Mio?” Ritsu asked amusedly.

…Wait, he did?

…Wait, he did?” Tadaaki muttered.

I could hear Mio chuckling nervously. “I-I don’t remember much of those times.

…This was getting rather interesting, so I sneaked closer to the stairs to hear better. Guess it was a bit hypocritical of me, not liking to be eavesdropped, but still doing it.

Tadaaki snickered, and judging from his shadow, he was probably leaning against the wall, right next to the stairs. “Yeah, but guess there’s no need to. A lot has changed since then.”

He paused for some seconds, and then continued: “…especially that guy up there.”

“Yes. Eiji-san sure has changed. When we first met him after junior high, he was like a completely different person,” Mio said.

“Yup, it sure felt like that to us, too,” Tadaaki said, and elaborated: “Just a month into high school, and he quits smoking, reduces drinking, doesn’t care to pick fights… A complete 180.”

A few surprised murmurs could be heard, until Yui asked: “…Eiji-kun used to do things like that?”

“Sure did, but not anymore,” Tadaaki muttered. “…I bet he’d feed me my ass on a platter if he’d hear me tell you this, but… I think it’s because of your sister.”

…You just went there, did you?

“B-Because of Ui?” Yui asked.

“That’s right. All of a sudden he has something else to do, somewhere else to go. And at the same time, he cleans up his act. And when I found out about the Hirasawa gal, well… It wasn’t too hard to connect the dots,” he explained.

“Yes, we have noticed how close those two are,” Tsumugi said.

“It’s kinda strange, though, since they seem so different from each other,” Azusa noted.

Tadaaki snickered quietly, and sighed out of amusement. “Yeah, well, I guess they have their reasons. Even though they might not realize it themselves…”

He’s not implying about…? No, he’s not saying it outright. I trusted him with that information, and he always keeps his promise, though sometimes something might slip out. Guess I can let it be, for now.

It was quiet for some seconds, until Tsumugi suggested: “Should we go check on them?”

I took that as a sign to back off. Quickly but quietly, I made my way to the bathroom, checking the cabinet. Sure enough, there was a shallow bucket there, which I placed in the sink, filling it with cold water. I also found a towel, the kind that’s designed to be placed on the forehead. Huh, can’t say I’ve ever seen one before. As I was wondering about the piece of cloth, I could hear the others walking the stairs up, soon emerging to the hallway.

“Is everything alright in here?” Mio asked.

I quickly turned to look at her, pretending to be caught off guard. “O-Oh, uh, yeah. Ui-san’s in the bed.”

A slight smile appeared on Mio’s face. “Good job.”

I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded for an answer, turning to look at the bucket as it filled with water.

“Ah, I’ll go get some drinking water,” Azusa said, disappearing back downstairs.

“Yui, could you get the thermometer, please?” Tsumugi asked.

I watched the girls getting to work for a bit, until I turned back to look at the bucket, which was already full, and was starting to spill over the edges. I turned off the faucet, getting rid of some of the water, and then carried the bucket over to Ui’s room. I let the girls do the rest, and just stayed back, observing the situation. According to the thermometer, her fever wasn’t that high, luckily. The girls said that they’d be heading home, so that Ui could rest without any ruckus. This shocked Yui, who wasn’t sure if she’d be able to take care of her by herself.

As we all got down to the living room, I made my decision public: “I think I’ll stay here for a bit longer.”

It, however, didn’t seem to surprise the gang that much, almost as if they were expecting it…

“I knew you’d say that,” Tadaaki said, crossing his arms.

Yui seemed to be rather relieved about my announcement. “R-Really?”

“You don’t really need to, I’m sure Yui will manage by herself,” Ritsu said with a sympathetic smile.

I glanced at Yui, who looked like she’d really appreciate any help she could get, and then at the girls. “Nah, I’m sure. Besides, if Ui-san has to worry about Yui-san, she’ll have a hard time recovering.”

Judging by Yui’s expression, that wasn’t the explanation she was prepared for. It made me grin a bit.

The girls looked at each other, and smiled at me. “Well, suit yourself,” Ritsu said. I’m pretty sure their reactions were affected by the conversation they held earlier with Tadaaki.

Yui and I escorted the others to the foyer, where we said our goodbyes. We then returned upstairs to Ui’s room. She was rather surprised to hear that I decided to stay for a while.

“Eiji-kun… You don’t need to stay here. We’ll manage by ourselves,” Ui muttered to me, only her head peeking from under the blanket.

I leaned against the wall, crossing my arms and turning my head to the side. “Yeah, I don’t need to… But I want to.”

She raised her eyebrows a bit, looking surprised, and then lowered them, smiling. “…Guess there’s no way to change your mind, huh?”

I snorted amusedly, glancing at her from the corner of my eye. “Yeah, no. I’m quite stubborn, if you haven’t already noticed.”

Still smiling, she turned to look at Yui, who was sitting on the floor, facing the bed. “I’m fine by myself now, sis.”

“But…” Yui muttered in a low voice, still sounding a bit worried.

“I’m more worried about you two catching my cold if you’re near me,” Ui interrupted her.

Yui still looked a bit reluctant, so I decided to step in. “She’s right. We better let her get some rest.”

Yui looked at me, and then at Ui, who nodded approvingly. Thinking for a bit, Yui finally stood up, and slowly made her way to the door. We both exited to the hallway.

“Shout if you need anything,” Yui said, before shutting the lights and closing the door.

We both stood in the hallway, looking at Ui’s room’s door for some seconds. Yui got some kind of an idea, and turned to face me, her worriedness being replaced by determination.

“Ah, I’ll make some rice porridge!” she proclaimed.

I couldn’t help but smile at her enthusiasm. “Need any help?”

She shook her head. “No, thanks. I’ll manage.”

She then hurried to the stairs, skipping them down. I looked at the stairway, and then at Ui’s room’s door. Heh, that gal sure has an amazing big sister… Maybe I shouldn’t be worrying about it so much after al—

Crash!

I flinched as the sound of pans and pots falling on the floor caught me by surprise. Shit, Ui will never be able to rest easily if this goes on.

“No, no, nope, you definitely could use some help,” I said as I hurried down the stairs to the kitchen.

I was crouching down, cleaning a dropped egg from the floor. Meanwhile, Yui was manning the stove, the porridge boiling in the pot. I noticed something, and took a better look at her: she seemed preoccupied.

“What’s up?” I asked her as I threw the paper towel in the trash.

It took her by surprise. “W-what?”

“Nah, nothing, you just were lost in thought…” I muttered, returning to the counter to chop the things Yui wanted to put in the porridge: some herbs, and a small sausage. A bit strange, sure, but I felt like now wouldn’t be the best time to comment on that.

It was quiet for a while, save for the sound of boiling and chopping, until Yui spoke: “…I was just thinking that, well… Ui is very important to me, and I like having her by my side, but… it won’t last forever.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what to say to that, so I had to think about it for a bit. “…So, what are you saying?”

“I… I guess I just want to express my gratitude somehow. But, just a few words wouldn’t be enough…” she muttered, looking at the bubbling porridge.

I looked at her over my shoulder, and returned to chopping. “What about a song?”

“Eh?” She turned around to look at me.

“Didn’t you have the lyrics writing thing going on?” I reminded her, finishing up with the chopping, and moving the chopped things on a plate. “There’s many ways to express one’s feelings, but art is definitely the best one. Paintings, poems… and music, you know.”

“Oh…” she muttered. “Do you really think I’d be able to do something like that?”

I kept looking at the chopping board, and sighed. I was getting a bit tired of this blue atmosphere, so I struck the knife to the chopping board out of frustration, catching Yui off guard. I turned to face her, crossing my arms.

“Look, Yui-san. I’ve known you for almost three years now. And from that, I can come up with a lot of conclusions about you. Yes, you’re clumsy, silly, goofy, and also a bit annoying at times… But, you must be the most determined gal I’ve ever met. When you set your mind to something, it’s damn sure that thing gets done. And that’s something I admire about you; your determination,” I explained to her.

I detached the knife from the cutting board, setting it gently to the side, and faced Yui once again, who was quietly listening to me. “And, two other things. One: you’re the best fucking musician I know, period! If someone could come up with a suitable song, it’s you, that’s for sure. And two…”

I paused for a while, turned to look at the stairway, and continued: “…You must be the greatest big sister I’ve ever met.”

“…So, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with something.”

Shit, did I scare her with the knife thing and with my rambling? Ah, I also forgot to keep my language in check. Ugh, I just don’t know when to stop, do I? Carefully, I turned around to face Yui, trying to come up with an apology at the same time. However, the moment I faced her, she charged at me, and… grabbed me for a hug. Wrapping her hands around my body, she grasped me, resting her head on my chest. Her hug, it was very warm.

“…Thank you, Eiji-kun.”

She sounded both relieved and happy. That’s the second time she’s thanked me during this week. But unlike yesterday, this expression of gratitude felt more… sincere, should I say. I just stood there in surprise for some seconds, until I slowly started smiling. I placed my hand on her hair, stroking it a bit.

“Yeah, don’t mention it,” I muttered.

I stood there in her grasp for a while, until I reminded her about the porridge. She hurriedly let go of me, returning back to the stove. Luckily, it hadn’t burned, but was actually done. So, she scooped some onto a plate, and then sprinkled the things I just chopped on top of the porridge. And on top of all that, she placed a sunny side up egg she had fried earlier. Seriously, I really wanted to comment on it, but decided to just keep my mouth shut. She set the plate on a serving tray with a glass of water. I offered to carry the tray upstairs.

Carefully and quietly, Yui opened Ui’s door. We peeked inside, finding her sound asleep. We sneaked further into the room, where I set the tray down on Ui’s work desk. Yui was thinking about something, when she got an idea, and took a seat on the chair. She dug around the drawer for a bit, pulling out a pen, and a small sheet of paper. She scribbled a message on it: ‘I made you some porridge, remember to eat it!’ She also drew a heart at the end of the message, and handed the pen over to me.

“Huh? You want me to write something, too?” I whispered.

She nodded for an answer. I thought about it, and took the pen, thinking about what to write… Ah, I got it! ‘If this doesn’t make you feel better, then you’re already dead!’ Heh, that should cause a reaction or two… At least it caused some reactions in Yui, who wasn’t sure what to feel about it. I handed the pen back to her. Yui set the note on the serving tray, and was just about to get up, when her eyes were drawn to the pen in her hand. She was clearly thinking about something. After a bit of pondering, she dug around the drawer once again, this time taking out many regular sized sheets of paper.

“I think I’ll start working on those lyrics right away,” she told me quietly.

I nodded, and smiled. “Sounds good. I’ll clean the dishes, and then I’ll probably head home.”

“Ah, okay,” Yui answered. As I was making my way to the door, she suddenly whispered: “Good night, Eiji-kun. And, thank you.”

I turned to look at her over my shoulder, and grinned a bit. “Yeah, night, Yui-san.”

I stepped out of the room, quietly closing the door after me. I then made my way downstairs, to the kitchen, where I spent some minutes cleaning the dishes we used. When I got the job done, I turned off all the lights on this floor, and walked to the living room, picking up my uniform’s coat. I was about to put it on, when I suddenly let out a big yawn. Man, I’m more tired than I realized… Maybe I should sit down, just for a bit. So, I set the coat back down, taking a seat on the green couch I’ve gotten so used to. I looked around the darkened room with tired eyes, until they were drawn to the TV on the floor.

Yeah, guess it was almost three years ago when I first stepped inside this house. It was also almost three years ago when I first met Yui. And the first time I saw her? On that TV screen’s reflection. Back then, I had a lot of thoughts and prejudices about her, based on our first encounter. But, as the time went on, I came to learn a lot more about her. She’s silly, but she’s not stupid. And, she’s also a very good friend. To me, and to the others. I’m happy to have been able to meet someone like her…

...

......

I slumped sideways on top of the couch, and before I even realized it, I was already asleep.

Chapter Text

It was a Saturday afternoon. Only a bit over a week until the Sakuragaoka festival would be happening. Since I had nothing else to do, I decided to invite both Tadaaki and Ichiro over, since it’s been too long since we’ve hung out at my place. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, holding Patricia on my lap. Tadaaki was sitting on the floor next to me, and Ichiro had taken a seat on my computer chair, slowly swaying from side to side.

“I almost got this riff down to a perfection, but I’m still stuck on this part. See how I have to change from Dm to G?” I said, demonstrating the said thing.

Tadaaki nodded. “Ah, I see. You have to slide your ring finger so far down.”

“Don’t you ever cut your fingers open doing that?” Ichiro asked.

I snickered a bit. “Nah, the skin of your fingertips gets thicker the more you play. Besides, only rusty strings give you cuts.” To complement my sentence, I slid my fingers up and down the strings.

Ichiro rested his chin on his palm. “Why are you playing it, anyway? It’s not like you’ll have any performances anymore.”

“The hell does that mean?” I muttered, unamused. “I don’t need a reason to play, I play because I like it.”

He just shrugged indifferently, and glanced elsewhere. “Yeah, maybe.”

I’m not sure why, but him talking shit about my interest in guitar almost got me riled up. But that’s Ichiro for you; a real dickhead at times. You’d think I’d gotten used to it over the years, but he still manages to tick me off with his brainless opinions. Tadaaki noticed my annoyed expression, so he decided to step in.

“Let him talk shit all he wants, but it won’t change the fact that your playing’s got a whole lot better since the Winter Festival,” he noted.

“Huh?” Ichiro suddenly turned to face us. “I wasn’t saying anything about his skills.”

“You diss a man’s interest, you diss everything related to it,” Tadaaki said, crossing his arms. “It’s the same as asking ‘Why are you going to that coffee club? It’s not like you’ll be a barista’.”

Ichiro made a full spin on the chair, muttering: “…Shit, you got me there.”

I took a glance at Patricia on my lap, before reaching for the amplifier, switching it off and unplugging the guitar.

“H-Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean it,” Ichiro stuttered apologetically.

“Nah, man, it’s not you,” I said, getting on my feet. “I’m just feeling like having some coffee. How about you guys?”

“I was just about to ask the same,” Tadaaki said, also standing up. “To Nakamura-san’s café?”

Ichiro got off the chair, sliding it back under the desk. “Sounds good to me, I still got some money left.”

I set Patricia down on my bed, and snapped my fingers towards the room’s door. “It’s a plan, then.”

But, before I could even take a step, my phone began vibrating on top of the desk. Ichiro, who was right next to the desk, picked it up.

“Could you please not?” I said, frowning.

He glanced at the lid. “Unknown caller,” he noted, before tossing the phone over to me. I barely managed to catch it.

“And could you please not toss my shit around!?” I snarled at him before turning my attention to the phone.

Just as he said, the caller was unknown. Well, better answer it, anyway. If it turns out to be some salesman, I’ll mess with him.

“Yeah?”

“Hello, Eiji-san,” a familiar voice greeted me.

“Tsu—?” I was just about to blurt out in surprise, but then remembered about the two guys currently present in the same room. I mean, not that Sakuragaoka’s gals are a secret to them, but somehow I felt like disguising Tsumugi for a bit longer. “…Miss Kotobuki?”

“Ah, you don’t have to call me that,” she giggled in her gentle voice.

I walked a few steps away from the guys, leaning against my wardrobe. “Uh, well, what’s this about?”

“Are you free tomorrow at noon?” she asked.

“Eh, depends. I’m not sure if I’m even awake at that time,” I said.

The guys glanced at each other. Ichiro jerked his head towards the door, and Tadaaki nodded. They both then headed out. Ah, good, some privacy.

“Well, would you like to come to a café?” she asked.

Puzzled, I muttered: “…café?”

“Yes. You see, we’re holding a special training lesson for Mio. She was chosen to be the leading role in our class’ play, but, well, she’s very shy, as you know,” she explained.

I nodded to myself. “Yeah, I get it. So, what’s up with the café?”

“Ah, it’s a place run by a family friend. We’ll be working there tomorrow, to train Mio to be less nervous.”

“…Alright, fair enough. And, uh, where exactly do I come in?” I asked.

Tsumugi giggled a bit. “I just thought it’d be fun if one of the customers was someone we knew.”

“…So, just for your own amusement?” I verified.

“Yes,” she said bluntly.

Like everyone, Tsumugi, too, has her own playful side. Though, she clearly has an unusual sense of humor. Thinking about it, I guess I could go. Honestly, I was kinda curious about how Mio would fare as a café employee. She said ‘we’, so the rest of the gang will probably also be there, and their company is always welcome. And, since the café is run by a family friend, I can only assume that it’s some fancy place with all kinds of tasty stuff.

It took me a couple of seconds to come up with an answer: “Okay, I guess I can stop by.”

“Great! Oh, and you can also bring a friend or two, if you want,” she suggested.

I glanced at my room’s door, thought about it, and sighed quietly. “…Yeah, that can be arranged, too.” I really hope I won’t come to regret this decision…

She told me the time and place, and also that ‘we’d be expected’, whatever that means, before we said our goodbyes to each other, and ended the call. Closing the phone’s lid, I slipped it into my pocket, and headed out of the room. To my pleasant surprise, the guys weren’t eavesdropping on me. I headed down the stairs, finding the guys standing in the foyer with their shoes on.

“Ah, you done?” Tadaaki asked as he noticed me. “Ready to go?”

I was about to nod, until I thought about it, and shook my head. “Uh, on second thought, let’s just have coffee here.”

Ichiro cocked his head, confused. “Huh? Why?”

“I, well, got a call from my former employer, and she asked if I’d like to visit some café tomorrow. I thought you guys could come along, too, so I’m thinking that you should probably save your money for that,” I explained.

The guys glanced at each other, and Tadaaki shrugged. “Oh, well, sure, I guess.”

I headed to the kitchen to make us some coffee, while the guys took their shoes off, and headed to the living room.

“By the way, you guys need to be up and about at noon,” I notified them as I prepared the coffee.

“At noon!?” Ichiro flinched. “Man, I had planned on watching that late-night flick…”

“Of course you can watch it, you’ll just have to suffer through the lack of sleep,” Tadaaki quipped, crashing on the couch.

As I prepared the coffee and the guys continued joking, their voices soon became muffled as I fell in thought, thinking about what would happen.

And then came tomorrow. Just as we planned, we met up at around noon, and just like I anticipated, Ichiro was yawning all the way, having barely got any sleep. Without any further ado, we began walking to the café. The further we walked, the more the surroundings changed to resemble a countryside or something. I looked up the address yesterday night, so I knew it was located at the edge of town, but it still surprised me. Is it some small, local café, like Nakamura’s? Well, I guess we’ll find out. And oh boy, when we finally arrived at the café, we found out, indeed.

“…What the fuck? Is this a café?” Ichiro said out of astonishment, scoping the place up and down.

Tadaaki, too, was surprised. “Shit, it’s like a mansion or something. I’d never guess it was a café if that sign wasn’t there.”

I understood their reactions, since I was just as shocked as them. The place was a three-story building, the kind you’d expect a European royalty to live in. The walls covered by dozens of windows with fancily patterned frames, the whole place surrounded by tall hedgerows and a flower arch spreading over the main gates… Sure enough, the place looked beautiful. Beautiful and too fancy to be just your ordinary café, that is. But, knowing Tsumugi, this most likely isn’t an ordinary café.

“They’ll probably call the cops if we step inside,” Ichiro said, looking down at his flashy band shirt.

I, too, took a look at my red hoodie and worn jeans. Tadaaki was the only one of us who was dressed at least somewhat appropriately with his collared shirt and clean pants, but his dyed hair would give him away as a not-suitable-for-a-fancy-establishment person.

I swallowed out of nervousness. “W-Well, I was told that we’d be expected, so… Fuck it, I guess.”

The guys nodded, but I could sense their uneasiness. We kept standing in front of the place for a few seconds more, until I decided to take the lead, and made my way to the door, the guys following right after me. Carefully, I opened the door. Just as anyone would expect, the inside, too, looked all fancy, with a red fitted carpet and beige walls with dark wood wainscoting. A pleasant smell of an old but well kept building filled the air. But, none of those were the most surprising part, no. What took the cake was the two girls standing further in the hallway, dressed as maids. And I recognized them, they were Azusa and Tsumugi. With shining smiles, they both cocked their heads.

“Welcome!” they both bid us in unison.

The guys and I stood in the doorway, dumbstruck. The girls, however, didn’t seem to care much about our reactions.

“A table for three, I presume?” Tsumugi asked.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” I said, having recovered from the shock.

She beckoned us to follow her. “Right this way, if you please.”

Giving the guys a quick glance, we began following the girls through the hallway, and around the corner. We were led to a big and fancy dining hall, which honestly looked more like a ballroom. A fancy wooden furniture, pink silk curtains, many chandeliers… Well, you get the gist. In short, a very, very fancy-looking place. Too fancy for a group of ruffians like us to just march in. Tsumugi directed us to a table in the corner, next to the windows, with three chairs around it. As we took a seat, Azusa came back with a handful of menus, handing them over to us.

“Here you are. Let us know when you’re ready to order,” she said, still keeping that shining smile on her face, but I swear she must’ve been thinking ‘What’s this guy doing here!?’

The second we took a look at the menus, the guys and I flinched out of shock. Shit, everything’s so expensive! I mean, it should’ve been obvious, but it still managed to surprise me. You’d get two coffees and a sandwich at Nakamura’s café for the price of this place’s coffee… But, I’ve got to admit, this place had a pretty good selection. Thanks to my time in the club, I recognized all of the coffee options. Though, I’m not sure if I’d charge this much for them…

Having noticed my reaction, Tsumugi leaned a bit closer. “Is something bothering you?”

“O-Oh, no, it’s just… T-This is kinda, uh, pricey,” I muttered nervously.

“This establishment uses only ingredients of the best quality to ensure an utmost customer satisfaction,” she explained, still smiling.

Grinding my teeth, I looked at the menu again, and then at Tsumugi. “Yeah, sure, I don’t doubt that, but still…”

A few seconds of silence followed, until Tsumugi suddenly nodded. “Very well, then. I’ll check with the management to see if we can’t come to a suitable solution. Please, wait for a moment.”

And, with a subtle wink of an eye, she was gone, leaving only Azusa with us. Speaking of her, she quickly took a look around her, and walked right next to me, leaning closer.

“What are you doing here?” she asked me, keeping her voice low and still smiling like an angel.

I sighed, setting the menu flat on the table. “Let me guess: Tsumugi-san told you guys nothing about this?”

She discreetly shook her head. “No. If Mugi-senpai wouldn’t have been with me at the door, I would’ve asked for you to leave.”

…Shit, even though she’s all smiles, I still could sense the annoyance in her voice. I glanced at the guys, who were too busy browsing their menus to care about our quiet conversation.

“Why all the hostility?” I asked her. I mean, she doesn’t like me much, since I enjoy teasing her, but this was still over the top even for her

“Because this is supposed to be a special training for Mio-senpai to help with her nervousness, and I’m sure you messing about won’t do it any good,” she explained, her eyebrow twitching out of frustration.

I shrugged, unamused. “What? What do you think I’m gonna do? Order a cup of breast milk or something? Give me a break…”

She twitched, her smile almost breaking. I bet she wanted to grab me by the collar and trash me around. However, I was saved by Tsumugi, who returned to us. At the same time, Azusa retreated, and acted like nothing happened.

“Thank you for waiting,” Tsumugi said to us, getting our attention. “I spoke with the management. Since Sugimoto-sama is a former employee of the Kotobuki estate, the house is willing to offer the table a 50% discount.”

Woah, 50-fucking-percent!? Now we’re talking! I turned to look at the guys to check if they were as excited about the news as I was, but was only met with a pair of confused faces.

“…A former employee?” Tadaaki asked.

“…Kotobuki estate?” Ichiro added.

Oh.

“Ah, right. She’s my former employer,” I told the guys, pointing at Tsumugi with my thumb.

The guys slowly turned to look at Tsumugi, who was just standing there, not caring about the looks. Wait, Azusa, too, looked just as surprised as my friends. Almost as if this was her first time hearing about it… No, hold on. Knowing Tsumugi, it most likely was.

“I’ll take your orders when you’re ready,” she said.

“O-Oh, right…” I muttered, picking up the menu and browsing through it again, this time more carefully, since I was actually willing to order something.

Since the guys and I knew all the coffees in the menu, it only took us a few seconds to make our orders. The guys ordered their favorite drinks, while I decided to try something different and ordered an extra strong cappuccino with vanilla foam. Giving us courteous bows, the girls disappeared through one of the doorways. And now that they were gone, the guys turned their attention to me.

“Alright, you’ve got some explaining to do,” Ichiro said, resting his elbow on the table.

Tadaaki realized something. “Wasn’t that blonde at the Hirasawa gal’s place the other day?”

I nodded. “Yeah, the very same.”

“…And she’s your former employer?” Tadaaki muttered.

I tilted my head backwards. “Eh, not officially, but since I was serving her family, I guess you could call her that.”

“So, did she invite you here out of politeness, or…?” Ichiro asked.

I looked at them, and turned my attention to the menu on the table. “I’ll explain later… Huh, there’s a dessert menu on the bottom of the page.” I wasn’t trying to change the subject, I just happened to notice it only now.

We spent the following minutes talking about some inside stuff, though keeping our voices low and the language in check, since we obviously weren’t the only customers there. Not that we care about such a thing in other restaurants or cafés, but something about this place’s atmosphere forced us to behave a bit more civilized. I also noticed that the entirety of Yui’s club was here, posing as waitresses, all dressed as maids. Since I had nothing more to hide, I decided to quietly introduce them one by one to Ichiro when one of them entered the dining hall, even though it was a one-sided introduction. He got more surprised the more girls I introduced to him. And, well, I guess it was an excuse for us to look at a bunch of cute girls dressed as maids.

“Ah, Eiji-kun?”

Our conversation was cut short when my name was suddenly called. Turning to face the voice, I found Yui walking towards our table, carrying a serving tray.

“When did you get here?” she asked, surprised.

I wasn’t really amused. “This is getting very old, you know.”

She cocked her head. “What is?”

“You noticing my presence late,” I clarified.

She set the tray down on the table, chuckling embarrassedly. “Heh, well, I just can’t help it. Maybe you blend well in the surroundings or something.”

Me? Blend well? With my red hoodie and whatnot? Hell, I bet I could be sitting in front of her in her class and she’d still take a while to notice it… But, whatever, she’s been like this for as long as I’ve known her, but I can’t say I’ve gotten used to it. Yui proceeded to serve us our drinks, before bowing and returning through the same doorway she came from. The guys and I sipped our drinks, and flinched a bit.

“This…” Tadaaki muttered, lowering the cup from his lips.

“…is…” Ichiro continued.

“…damn good,” I finished the sentence.

The espresso in my cappuccino had a surprisingly mellow flavor. The kick of the inevitable acridity was unnaturally pleasant, like a fallen leaf peacefully floating down, and gently touching the surface of a calm pond. The secret was in the vanilla foam, which wasn’t as strongly sweet as I thought it would be, but instead had the subtlest aroma, though clearly tastable. Combined with the espresso, it led to the most marvelous of fusions – A fusion of flavors I’d be longing for years to come, a combination which could take your tastebuds on a journey you’d never forget. In short, it was a fucking good cup of coffee, I must say.

Ichiro glanced at his cup, gently swirling the contents. “Man, I’ve made this countless times back at the club room, how come it has never tasted this good?”

“I don’t know, maybe we’re just too cheap when buying ingredients,” Tadaaki noted.

“…Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m just… speechless,” I muttered, and took another sip, this time savoring it more carefully.

The following minute was peaceful. We just sat in silence, enjoying our drinks. That silence was broken by Ichiro, who dug his money out of his pocket, counting it. He then took another look at the menu, quietly mumbling something to himself. He then shoved the money back into his pocket.

“Didn’t you say something about desserts? With that discount you got us, I think I can actually order something.”

Tadaaki, too, took a look at the menu. “Now that you mention it, a pastry of some kind would go well with this.”

Huh, you know, I actually felt the same. If the coffee is this good, I wonder what the desserts taste like. I checked the menu’s dessert section. It wasn’t as extensive as the drinks section, but it still took me a bit to decide what to order. Hmm, a blueberry cheesecake sounds good… Right as I made my decision, I happened to notice Ritsu walking by.

“Ah, excuse me,” I called out for her.

She came over to us, cocking her head with a smile. “Yes, how may I help you?”

“That doesn’t really suit you, you know,” I couldn’t help but quip to her.

“Shut up, if you please,” she said swiftly, still smiling.

With an amused snort, I ordered myself a dessert, and the guys did the same. As Ritsu was writing the orders down, she noticed something, and pointed at Ichiro with her pen.

“Ah, you must be the third one,” she said.

Ichiro’s confused expression made Tadaaki snicker, so he saw for the best to explain: “She went to the same junior high as us.”

“Really?” Ichiro muttered. “Oh, yeah, I think I remember you. Weren’t you the one who always drummed on her desk during breaks? We could hear it all the way to our class.”

Huh, seriously? I can’t recall such a thing, but then again, I’ve forgotten a lot of things from my time in junior high.

Ritsu flinched a bit, her smile turning into a nervous one. “W-Well, I, um, can’t seem to recall…” Embarrassed, aren’t we?

She then quickly spun around on her heels. “A-Anyway, thank you for ordering!” And she was gone.

We kept on drinking our coffees, though slowly, since we didn’t want to finish them until we’d have something to snack on. We didn’t have to wait for long, maybe a minute or two. The girl of the hour, Mio herself, brought the desserts to our table. Compared to the rest of the gals, her smile was shining the brightest. I was expecting her to be more sheepish, so it took me by surprise.

She set the desserts in front of us. “Here you are, thank you for waiting. Please, enjoy,” she said like a professional waitress, surprising me even more.

“Sure, thanks,” I nodded, and was just about to dig into my cheesecake, when something struck me as odd. “Oh, by the way…” I said before Mio had the chance to leave.

“I heard this was some kind of a training session to help you with your stage fright.”

“Oh, uh, yes, that’s true,” she confirmed, sounding a bit embarrassed, but not breaking her smile.

I fiddled with the pastry fork (damn, I last saw these things when working at Kotobuki’s). “Just thinking, but, you’ve done very well at the past concerts, so… What’s up? Why all this?”

“…Well, to tell the truth…” she began. I’m not sure what to make of that long pause at the beginning.

“It’s not for the concert. It’s for, well…” she muttered, blushing ever so slightly, but… What the fuck, is that smile glued to her face or what? “Our class is doing a production of Romeo and Juliet.”

Oh, shit, I completely forgot about that. “Right, and you landed yourself a main role.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right,” she nodded.

Ah, well, that makes sense. A play and a concert are in completely different leagues. Maybe, I don’t know, I’ve only done one of them. With the mystery solved, I could finally eat the delicious looking blueberry cheesecake in front of me. Speaking of eating, the guys were already munching on their desserts, seemingly not paying any mind to our conversation. I scooped the tip of the cake off, pierced it with the fork, and was about to eat it.

“I’m, well, going to play Romeo.”

The sudden news made me halt in surprise. Out of the two possible options, I didn’t expect that one. But, now that I think about it, it does kinda make sense in a way. I’ve seen many times how she handles Ritsu when she gets on her nerves, and, well, that’s far from femininity. Furthermore, Mio’s taller than your average girl, so a masculine role would suit her better. Maybe it’s better to keep my thoughts to myself, I’m not sure if a girl wants to be told that they’re masculine…

“That so? Well then, who’s playing—? Ah, forget it, most likely someone I don’t know,” I shrugged, and popped the piece of cake into my mouth. Oh, damn, it’s good!

She turned her head the other way, looking somewhere, her perfect smile almost breaking. “Well, that, uh, would be…” she muttered under her breath.

It took me a couple of seconds to realize she was looking at something in particular. Or someone, as a matter of fact. Following her gaze, I was met with Ritsu, who was delivering an order to a table on the other side of the room. As she noticed our glances, she looked back at us, confused. I think she understood what was going on when I lost my poker face and almost choked on the cake. I can’t help it, it just doesn’t suit her at all!

About ten minutes later we were ready to make our leave. After enjoying our coffees and desserts, we spent some minutes catching up with the girls, who had just started their break. Ritsu was giving me a nasty glance the whole time due to my earlier gesture. Tadaaki and I did most of the talking, while Ichiro just observed from the side. After we reckoned we had wasted enough of their time, we paid our bill. Even with the 50% discount, the sum was still way more than what any of us would pay for a cup of coffee. But, I’ve got to admit, it was rather good. And the cake, too. The girls escorted us to the door, bowing gracefully and bidding us goodbye. We exited the café, giving it one last look, and started heading back home. The second the door closed, Tadaaki opened his mouth.

“Well, that was something,” he noted.

“Something different, alright,” Ichiro added, clasping his hands behind his neck, and glancing at me. “And I’m not just talking about the coffee.”

I raised my eyebrow. “Hm? I thought you’d already be used to this.”

Tadaaki snorted. “Honestly, that blonde being your former employer took me by surprise, too.” Ichiro nodded in agreement.

“Oh, you mean that,” I muttered, tilting my head backwards and looking up at the blue sky.

We kept on walking down the hill, when Ichiro recalled something: “By the way, that tall, black haired girl—”

“Yeah, she went to Yukinokawa, too,” I cut him off by answering his question.

Tadaaki smirked a bit. “I heard you tried to hit on her back then.”

“Wait, what!?” Ichiro cried out, glancing over his shoulder at the café, which was slowly disappearing from the view. “…You think she remembers?”

“She does,” Tadaaki and I confirmed in unison.

It was quiet for a minute. A blush started forming on Ichiro’s face.

“…fuck,” he finally muttered. “Just snap my neck already.”

Tadaaki and I just laughed at his reaction.

“Well, that’s how it goes,” Tadaaki snickered, tapping Ichiro on the shoulder, who didn’t seem too amused about our shitty grins.

Well, that was that, then. A bit over a week until the Sakuragaoka’s festival, I can’t wait. But, if Mio and Ritsu have to practice for their play, then what about their club’s concert? On the other hand, they’re the Light Music Club, they practice every day. Or, more or less, at least according to what I’ve heard from Yui, tea times and all… But, knowing those gals, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Maybe. Hm, speaking of the play, I’ve always visited the festival one day every year, even though it takes place on multiple days. Maybe I should drop by a day earlier to take a look at their play? Oh, and didn’t Ui mention that their class will be holding a refreshment booth? Though, I’m not sure what Ui would think of me skipping school twice in a row…

Speaking of which, Ichiro’s earlier breakdown made me think about her. Would the festival be a suitable day, or…? Nah, better not think about it in advance, it only makes me nervous.

Chapter Text

Another snowy landscape. A white ground covered in a thick mist, snowflakes falling from the ostensible sky, passing through me as though they were nothing but illusions. The familiar sense of anxiety washed over me, and I began to walk, my legs moving through the thick layer of snow with ease like air. It wasn’t long until I came across it: the green light orb. Peacefully hovering in the air, not too high from the ground, casting a faint, green illumination around itself. Why did it have to be here? Why was I here? And why do I want to catch it so badly? Maybe now’s my chance. I moved forward, but halted when another light appeared between us. A yellow light. It didn’t stay there for too long, instead charging at me, almost as if attacking me. And it hurt. I fought back. I punched it, I kicked it, I punched it again. With each hit, it faded away little by little. But at the same time, the green light did the same, fading away with every hit I took at the yellow one. But, I wasn’t hitting it, so why was it disappearing? With the last punch, both of the lights disappeared, leaving me alone in the white emptiness. The whiteness soon blinded my eyes, and turned into darkness.

Slowly opening my eyes, I was met with my room’s darkened ceiling. I kept staring at it for a minute, maybe two, before closing my eyes and rolling over to my side, pulling the blanket over my head. I stayed like that for some time, until I silently sighed out of frustration, and sat up. Rubbing the sleep out of my eye, I finally got out of the bed, and slowly made my way to the computer table to check my watch. Damn, I’m somehow up early, even though I didn’t hit the hay until 1am. Well, I tried falling back to sleep already, and as it clearly didn’t work, I might as well get ready for school. Besides, I’ve been missing lots of morning classes lately.

Getting dressed and half-assedly making my bed, I picked up my school bag and was about to head to the bathroom. However, as I was just about to exit my room, the door suddenly opened, taking me by surprise. I took a quick step back to avoid getting hit by it. Behind the door was Tamiko, dressed in her school uniform, seemingly as surprised as I was.

“A-Ah, Eiji-chan, I was just about to come and wake you up, but, I guess there was no need.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, scratching my head. “Why such a service?”

Tamiko frowned. “Because you’ve been sleeping in too often lately.”

“And that affects you how, exactly?” I sighed.

She just kept frowning, muttering: “You’re an idiot.”

With a tired yawn, I waved my hand in front of her face. “Yeah, yeah. Out of the way, I need to take a piss.”

“An idiot,” she said as she finally moved out of the way and began walking towards the stairs. “A shameless, insolent idiot.”

I quickly wiped my shitty grin as I exited the room and made my way towards the bathroom.

Just as I got to the bathroom door, I heard Tamiko talking from behind me. “Hey, uh…”

I turned around, seeing only her head peeking amongst the stair railing.

“…I made some coffee for you,” she finished her sentence.

With an amused snort and a slight smile, I gave a quick wave of a hand. “Thanks.”

That’s how my and Tamiko’s relationship is. I always manage to annoy her in one way or another, and oh man, does she let me know when I’ve gotten on her nerves. But, at the end of the day, she’s still my loving little sister. That’s why I always try to show my gratitude whenever possible, even as a single word of thanks. I gave up on the idea of trying to be the cool big brother a long time ago, but I still try my best to be at least a decent big brother to her.

After having my breakfast, I made my way to the school, joining the mass of dozens of students on the street. When I finally got there, I headed straight to the club room. As I presumed, no one was there. It was rare for all three of us to be awake early at the same time. There was still some iced coffee left from yesterday, so I grabbed myself a glassful, since I didn’t feel like making anything special today. I also spent the time cleaning our coffee making equipment, all the while listening to some 80’s Japanese rock. I got things done just as the bell rang, and I lazily made my way to the class. Minutes later Ichiro ran to the class only seconds before the teacher, and Tadaaki joined us about an hour later. A really typical morning.

I was fiddling with my pen and glancing out of the window, all the while thinking. The teacher was scribbling some mathematical equation on the blackboard, his voice becoming more and more mumbled the deeper I fell into my thoughts. For some days now, I’ve felt like doing something, but now that I have the chance to do it, suddenly I’m not so sure about it anymore.

“Sugimoto!” a voice suddenly called.

I quickly turned to face the teacher, finding him pointing at me with the chalk.

“I asked you a question! Are you even listening to what I’m saying?” he asked, clearly annoyed.

Hm, maybe this is the push forward I was looking for. Usually I just bullshit my way out of these situations, but this time I might try something different.

I leaned backwards, laying the pen on the desk. “Oh, sorry, I was thinking about triangle roots.”

The teacher lowered his chalk, frowning a bit. “There’s no such thing.”

“Why? If there’s square roots, there has to be other ones, right?” I noted, spreading my hands.

A few amused, quiet murmurs could be heard around the class.

With a sigh, he put his hand on his lap, pointing at the classroom’s door. “If you’re here only to mess around and play stupid, you might as well leave.”

That was the signal I was waiting for.

I slammed my hand on the desk, taking the teacher by surprise. “Hell, I might as well just do that,” I proclaimed, got up, and walked out of the classroom before the teacher had a chance to say anything else.

I slipped my hands into my coat’s pockets as I made my way through the hallway towards the stairs. As I said, I usually don’t do such a stupid outbursts like that, but I can’t say it was the first time. Midway through, I glanced at my watch. Huh, just ten minutes before the lunch break would’ve started. Oh well. I got to the lobby, changed my shoes, and stepped outside. As I got out of the school yard and to the street, I dug out my phone, messaging Tadaaki. In the message, I told him to gather my stuff and leave my school bag in the club room. I mean, I guess I could’ve taken it with me, but I felt like this was a better option.

Roughly half-an-hour of walking later I finally arrived at my destination: the Sakuragaoka High School. Dozens of stalls covered the decorated campus grounds, bustling with hundreds of students and visitors. Today was the first day of the school’s festival. Even though Yui’s club’s concert wouldn’t be happening until tomorrow, I still decided to drop by today out of boredom. Besides, it gives me a chance to watch their class’ play. But, now that I’m here, I suddenly remembered about Ui. Oh, and also my sister, who went through all the trouble this morning to make sure I got to school early… Eh, fuck it, I guess. I’ll just suffer through it. Shrugging to myself, I entered the school grounds.

I spent some minutes just moseying around the yard, looking at different stalls and activities. Lots of them were the same as last year, but surprisingly, all of them had some twist to them to make them just different enough. Also, I noticed I was getting more looks from the students than usual. Hold on, could it be because of the rumors Tsumugi told me about? Oh, wait, maybe it’s because I’m in my school uniform. A student from another school visiting a festival when they’re supposed to be at school is sure something that catches attention. But I didn’t have the chance to stop by at my home to get changed, since there was a risk of my dad being awake and catching me skipping school. Not that it would bother me much, I just want to save myself from any unnecessary interrogations… Oh, right, I need to go in front of the auditorium to check the schedule, and—

“Um, excuse me.”

I came to a halt. The voice was coming from behind me, so I glanced over my shoulder, finding a short, spectacle-girl standing behind me. She was a student, and according to the color of her ribbon, she was in her second year. A completely unfamiliar gal to me, but she was looking at me, so she was most certainly speaking to me.

I turned only half-way, and faced her. “Hm, what?”

“Uh…” she sheepishly muttered.

Ah, no wonder. I’m a guy, one head taller than her, and acting like this. Hopefully she doesn’t feel too threatened.

As she finally managed to pull herself together, she asked: “You’re… You’re a student from another school, right?”

…Ain’t it obvious?

I nodded. “Yeah, what of it?”

“May I see your invitation?”

“…A what now?” I asked, cocking my head.

She flinched a bit, but tried her best to appear calm. “W-Well, the school regulations require that students from another school visiting the festival should have a formal invitation from one of the students here,” she explained with a nervous smile.

Why the hell haven’t I heard of this befo—? Oh, right, this is my first time being here in my school uniform… This was something I was not prepared for. With a sigh, I slipped my hands into my coat’s pockets, looking around a bit, while the girl nervously waited for me to answer. Should I call someone to come and help me out of this mess…? Wait, a bit further away… Isn’t that…? Oh, it is. I need to buy myself some time.

“Why?” I suddenly asked, catching the girl off guard.

She had no obligation to answer such a stupid question, she could’ve just thrown me out just for that.

“U-Uh, well, y-you see…” she stuttered, trying to gather her thoughts. “I-I guess it’s just common decency, because, well, the festival is happening on school days, and, well, we just want to be sure that if there’re, uh, other students visiting, they should have a good reason. Also, there’s the concern of some of them skipping school, and, um…”

…She really bought into my bullshit? Seriously? As she was taking a pause to remember all the student council’s brainwashing, I noticed that the gal who I saw earlier was now closer, only five meters away. Close enough to call for without shouting too loud.

I raised my hand. “Yo, Nodoka-san!”

The girl, Nodoka, came to a stop, turning to face me. Yup, that’s Nodoka, with red glasses and all, carrying a clipboard. Surprised and puzzled, she walked over to us. That’s also when the girl in front of me noticed her presence.

“A-Ah, Manabe-senpai!” she flinched.

Nodoka looked at the girl, and then at me, raising her eyebrow. “Eiji-san?”

“Is it true that you need an invitation if you’re a student from another school?” I asked her.

She nodded. “Well, yes, those are the regulations.”

I scratched my ear. “Right. So, can you give me an invitation?”

“Eh?” she muttered, taken aback.

It was quiet for some seconds, save for the noise of the festival around us, until the girl turned to face Nodoka. “Uh, Manabe-senpai, do you know him?”

She sighed a bit. “Yes, in a way…” She then glanced at me, before returning to the girl. “Well, there are many other students here who would give him the invitation, so it might as well be me, if it saves some time.”

She raised her clipboard, browsing through it until she found an empty page. She wrote something on it, ripped it off, and handed it over to me.

“Here. It’s not an official document, but pretty much every student council member should recognize my signature, so it’ll do.”

I took the note, giving it a quick look, and shoving it into my back pocket. “Thanks a lot. Oh, you got a stabler? I’d like to attach it to my sleeve so no one would bother me.”

She chuckled a bit at my shitty joke. “Sorry, no, but I’m sure you’ll manage.”

The other girl, dumbstruck, quietly made her leave. “U-Uh, excuse me…”

Nodoka and I watched as she disappeared into the crowd of people, when I recalled something. “Ah, by the way, when’s the play going to start?”

“Oh, you mean Romeo and Juliet?” she asked, glancing at her clipboard, and then at the school building’s clock. “In about an hour and a half.”

I, too, took a look at the clock, and nodded. “Right, thanks.”

“Well, I’ve got to go and help Yui and the others with the finishing touches,” she said.

“Ah, right,” I nodded. “See ya.”

She then headed towards the school building, disappearing into the crowd. Huh, even though she’s a student council member, she’s still willing to turn a blind eye to my shit. Well, whatever the reason, it suits me just fine. I spent another minute or two roaming around the yard, stopped by the auditorium to confirm that indeed, the play would start in an hour and a half, and then headed inside the school building itself.

Just as I anticipated, the inside, too, was decorated nicely. Bright colors are always a nice change of pace, even though I kinda like this school normally, too. I’m not sure why, I guess I just like old buildings. I picked one of the two wings, and slowly walked through it, glancing inside different classrooms, which were bustling with stalls and activities. However, I didn’t manage to find Ui’s class’ refreshment stall on this wing, so as I got to the end of the hallway, I turned around and made my way back to the entrance hall. A student council member happened to stop me and asked to see my invitation, so I dug out the note Nodoka had written, and showed it to her. She was surprised, but still accepted it, and let me be. Huh, Nodoka wasn’t kidding, her signature carries weight.

Now, to the other wing. If I can’t find the refreshment stall there, then I can’t find it anywhere… Wait, it’s most likely in their classroom. I should’ve just looked for the number of their class to begin with. Eh, whatever, a little sightseeing never hurt anyone. In the midst of admiring the decoration and dodging people in the hallway, I finally spotted the classroom for the class 2-1 in the distance. I also spotted a girl standing next to the doorway, greeting the customers. Oh, hey, that’s Azusa. Even though she was facing the other direction, I’d still recognize those long pigtails anywhere. As I got closer, I noticed she was wearing a mustard yellow kimono, the sleeves rolled up and tied with a tasuki. Huh, it actually looks kinda nice.

As I walked past her and got in front of the doorway, she bowed, bidding: “Welcome!” But, as she got up and got a better look at me, her expression suddenly changed. “Oh…”

Something about it made me smirk a bit. “Yo, Azusa-san.”

She looked at me, not sure what to make of the situation. “…I thought you were coming only tomorrow.”

“Eh, I got bored, so I decided to drop by,” I said with a shrug, and pointed at the doorway with my thumb. “Is Ui-san in?”

“Uh, yes, but…” she said, but stopped to think for a bit, before shaking her head to herself. “Just, don’t bother her too much.”

“Who, me? No, never,” I quipped, before pushing the curtain aside and moving through the doorway.

The classroom had been turned into a refreshment stall, just as anyone who cared to look at the signs outside would guess. One side of the room held the ‘kitchen’ area behind a handful of folding screens and a counter, behind which was a cashier, while the rest of the room held many tables for customers, which were actually just regular classroom desks pushed together and covered with a colorful table cloth. But, instead of the regular wooden chairs, this stall used big, soft looking ‘blocks’ for seating. They’re like pieces of a huge gym mat. Well, that’s something different. Most of the tables were occupied by customers, who were enjoying their drinks. Luckily, I managed to spot a couple of vacant ones, too. I didn’t see Ui anywhere, so she must be working behind those folding screens.

I walked over to the counter. The cashier was some unfamiliar student, dressed the same as Azusa.

She bowed a bit. “Welcome! May I take your order?”

I took a look at the menu hanging from one of the folding screens, thinking for a bit. “…I’ll have an iced tea and two white chocolate cookies.”

I dug out some coins out of my wallet, counted them, and handed them over to her.

“Okay, then,” she nodded, but an apologetic smile soon appeared on her face. “Unfortunately, we’re currently out of cookies, and are cooking a fresh batch just as we speak. Would you like your iced tea now, or do you prefer to have it delivered with the cookies?”

Hm, not a big problem. “Eh, I’m not in a hurry, so I can wait.”

“Excellent. Your order will be delivered to you at the table, so please, feel free to take a seat,” she instructed, pointing her hand towards the tables.

“Alright…” I muttered, and was just about to head there.

But, I stopped as a thought suddenly popped into my head. It was one of Tadaaki’s advice. A stupid thought, a stupid idea, but… maybe something I should do regardless. After all, it’s how I… Ugh, fuck it. I realized I had been standing there for three whole seconds, staring at nothing, and the cashier gal was probably getting confused.

“Well, actually…” I suddenly said, turning back to face her.

It took her off guard. “H-Huh, yes? Did you change your mind?”

Keep your cool, Sugimoto.

“Nah, I’d just like to make a request,” I said confidently, crouching down and leaning over the counter a bit.

“I’d like a cute, ponytailed girl to bring my order, if possible,” I said in a low voice.

…Shit, I said it, didn’t I?

Fuck, can’t believe I just did that! God damn it, now that I actually said it, I don’t think it was such a good idea after all. For fuck’s sake, these are high school girls, not some maid café employees! That cashier will probably take it as harassment, and I’ll get thrown out, and… Wait, speaking of the cashier, she’s just quietly staring at me, a faint blush on her face. Shouldn’t she have yelled at me by now?

After many painfully long seconds, she finally spoke: “…You’re Sugimoto, right?”

…What?

“H-Huh? Well, yeah, why?” I asked, both confused and nervous, my poker face slipping off bit by bit.

She didn’t answer, but instead… smiled? “Well, in that case, I’ll see what I can do,” she said with a nod.

…What!?

I really felt like asking about it, but quickly decided against the idea. “…Right,” I muttered, taking a step back from the counter.

I scoped out the tables again, and picked a vacant one from next to a wall. I took a seat on the soft block, and leaned sideways against the wall, being totally confused. I’ve never seen that girl, I have no idea who she is, but somehow she recognized me. She knew my name. Is… Shit, is she from Yukinokawa or something, or…? Hold on, is this because of the rumors? According to Tsumugi, some of the students have seen me hanging out with the Hirasawa sisters. Also, I can’t help but put some of the blame on Yui’s club, too, since I’m sure they’ve said something about me, intentionally or not. For example, that time when Ui called me on a speakerphone in her classroom, and Ritsu told everyone to ‘wish happy birthday to Sugimoto-san.’ And then there was that scene at the marathon, and… Ugh, I’m overthinking stuff again. This was long overdue. A girl going to an all-girls school and hanging out with a guy would catch attention sooner or later. As long as they only know my name and face, and not my past…

Minutes passed as I kept leaning against the wall, trying to decide between staring at the ceiling or at the table, occasionally taking a look around the room. Well, not that it mattered, as I was too deep in my thoughts to actually notice anything happening around me. As I said, all that occurred only because I happened to remember one of Tadaaki’s advice. Give her some subtle flirts, just to give her the idea that you’re interested, he said back then. I’m not sure if that was exactly subtle, or if it even was a flirt, but… aside from the play, she’s the reason I came here.

“A-Ah, Eiji-kun?”

I flinched, and quickly turned to face the voice. It was Ui, sporting the same attire as the other workers of this stall, and carrying a serving tray. At first, she was surprised to see me, but her expression quickly changed to a worried one.

“Is everything okay?” she asked in a low voice, setting the tray down on the table.

“Huh? A-Ah, yeah,” I stuttered, nodding a couple of times.

Ui still wasn’t convinced. “Really? You seemed so preoccupied.”

I’ve got to come up with a lie, and fast!

“…Well, honestly, I was kinda nervous to see you,” I said.

Ui cocked her head. “…Eh?”

“Because, well, you know…” I muttered, scratching my cheek. “…I kinda, well, left school early, even though I was supposed to come only tomorrow.”

Processing my words for a few seconds, Ui took a seat next to me. “Oh. Were you worried that I’d scold you?”

Phew, my bullshit saved me.

“Well, not really, since I knew you’d do it anyway, but the unpleasant anticipation was the thing that got me,” I said.

She was thinking for a moment. “Eiji-kun. I really don’t like it when you skip school, but I can make exceptions on the festival days.” She then took a glance at my school uniform. “Nonetheless, you still were at school today, right?”

I nodded. “Right. I left just as the lunch break started.” Actually, I was kicked out of the class ten minutes before it, but I’ll just keep that to myself.

“Well, then there’s no reason for me to scold you,” Ui said reassuringly, cocking her head with a smile.

I looked at her from the corner of my eye, and couldn’t help but to smile a bit. That actually eased my nervousness a bit.

Ui suddenly twitched. “Oh, right, I almost forgot!”

She reached for the serving tray, picking up a cup of iced tea and a plate holding two, big cookies, placing them in front of me. She then got up, picking up the tray, and holding it flat against her chest.

“There you go. Ah, by the way, my break starts in a bit, we could go roaming around. Azusa-chan and Jun-chan can come too, but unfortunately Tamiko-chan is on the next shift.”

Actually, that’s just fine by me. Even though Ui is quick to forgive, my sister sure isn’t.

I nodded. “Sounds good.”

Cocking her head with a smile, she returned back to the kitchen area, leaving me alone at the table. I looked at my order. The iced tea was served in a paper cup, while the cookies were on a paper plate. Well, it makes sense, saves you from washing the dishes. Without further ado, I picked up one of the white chocolate cookies. Damn, it was actually kinda big, bigger than my palm. After admiring it for far too long, I took a bite. It was tasty.

I finished the cookies and the iced tea, and spent my time folding the paper tableware into small clumps. Few minutes later Ui, Jun and Azusa came to pick me up, having changed into their normal school uniforms.

“Ah, so Eiji-kun really is here, huh?” Jun said.

Azusa glanced at the kitchen area’s folding screens. “Tamiko wasn’t really pleased when she heard that you’re here. She said she can’t stand seeing you right now.”

I chuckled a bit, gathering the trash from the table and getting on my feet. “Well, it’s nothing that chocolate and a few kind words won’t fix.”

Stopping by the trashcan to drop off the pieces of paper dishes, we exited into the hallway. I glanced at my watch.

“So, only an hour until the play starts,” I noted.

Ui nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right, I can’t wait to see it!”

Azusa, on the other hand, didn’t look as excited. “They’ve spent the past week practicing for the play instead of coming to the club room. I wonder how tomorrow will go…”

“Don’t stress over it too much,” I said, since I didn’t have any better advice.

We slowly began walking through the hallway towards the entrance hall. For some reason, Jun was glancing towards the ceiling, until she suddenly turned to face us.

“Want to take a look at how they’re doing?” she suggested.

Ui cocked her head. “Eh? Would that even be suitable?”

Azusa frowned a bit, noting: “Besides, visitors aren’t allowed on that part of the second floor.”

Jun just flapped her hand with a grin. “Don’t worry about it, a quick visit won’t hurt.”

“You just want to get me in trouble, don’t you?” I muttered, unamused.

“Says the guy skipping school to visit an all-girls school’s festival,” Jun said, putting her hands on her hips.

I thought about it for a second. “Hell, you got me there… Fine, just a quick peek. But, any signs of trouble, and I’m bolting out of here.”

Jun was grinning triumphantly. “I knew you had it in you.”

I glanced at the two other girls. Azusa, as I guessed, was sighing out of frustration, while Ui, well, was sparkling. I guess she wants to see her sister rehearsing, huh? Wait, what even is Yui’s role in this play?

We got up to the second floor, and, after making sure the coast was clear of any teachers, we slipped past the fences, one of them holding a sign that said No visitors past this point! Of course, as we walked along the hallway, we came across a few students, all of which were looking at me with puzzled expressions, but not saying anything. Well, maybe they’re not so strict about the rules because there’s only one of me, accompanied by three students. Soon we got to the classroom of the class 3-2. The door was ajar, so we could easily take a peek inside. And sure enough, the whole room was bustling with students, getting props and set pieces ready. Ah, and there’s Mio and Ritsu, rehearsing the play, and that’s… Tsumugi directing? Huh, didn’t see that coming. Ah, and there’s Nodoka, making sure everything was in order. But, where’s Yui?

“Oh, Eiji-kun!”

“I’m out of here,” I said swiftly, turning on my heels.

However, I only managed to take a single step before I heard someone running to the door. That someone was Yui, who had just spotted me, and alerted the whole room of my presence. I really don’t like causing attention.

“Eiji-kun, hello!” Yui greeted me from the doorway, as if saying my name once already wasn’t enough.

I took a deep breath to try to calm myself, and turned to face her. “Yo.”

“Eiji-kun!” Yui called me again, not caring about the scene it was causing. “Did you see me playing a tree?”

“A tree?” I muttered.

“Yes! I was a tree, standing in that corner!” she explained excitedly, pointing somewhere in the classroom.

I scratched the back of my head, trying to hide my nervousness. “You were? Man, I didn’t even notice you. That’s a damn fine tree playing right there.”

Yui squirmed due to the compliment, acting modest. “Aw, you really think so?”

Something about her goofiness made me relax a bit… At least until the rest of the gang appeared at the doorway.

“Oh, Eiji-san?” Mio said surprisedly.

I raised my hand. “Yeah, hi, gals.”

Ritsu smirked a bit. “Don’t you know that this place is off limits to visitors?”

“Yes, I do know, but I’m a big, bad delinquent, so what can you do?” I said sarcastically, glancing at the side.

My companions weren’t as bothered by the situation. “You guys looked cool!” Ui complimented them.

Ritsu nodded. “Heh, thanks, we’ve been practicing a lot.”

“Speaking of practicing, maybe we should let them continue, and not disturb them,” Azusa suggested, taking an annoyed glance at Jun, who was sheepishly looking elsewhere.

“Now, now. A small break doesn’t hurt,” Tsumugi soothed Azusa, and turned to face me. “Besides, it’s fun to have Eiji-san visiting us unexpectedly.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t really plan on visiting, but just taking a peek,” I noted with a shrug.

Ritsu’s smug grin didn’t look promising. “Peeking at girls changing their clothes? We also use this as a dressing room, you know.”

“Huh?” I muttered, carefully turning to look at the classroom’s hallway windows, which were covered by big, white sheets of paper. “…No one was actually changing their clothes, right?”

After a devastatingly long second, Ritsu finally snickered. “No, just kidding. We haven’t gotten our costumes yet.”

“Huh, right…” I sighed out of relief.

Suddenly, I heard the classroom’s other door opening behind me. I turned around, finding a bunch of Yui’s classmates peeking into the hallway, looking at me. Ah, shit, of course, it’s not just Yui’s club here. I’m just causing a scene and bothering the others… Though, they didn’t seem bothered, but curious.

“Ah, so this is Sugimoto-san?” one of them asked to my complete surprise.

I just stood there dumbstruck, my mouth open. “…What?”

“We’ve heard about you from Yui,” another one told me.

Blinking a couple of times, I slowly turned around to face Yui. As she noticed my gaze, she sheepishly lowered her head, rubbing her fingertips together.

“Ah, well, I might’ve accidentally slipped something out sometimes…” she muttered.

For some reason, I really doubt that explanation.

One of the girls in the doorway snickered. “Slipped? Like a couple of weeks ago, when you talked about how he stayed over to help you take care of your sister?”

I called it.

I once again looked at Yui, who was rubbing the back of her head, chuckling embarrassedly. Damn it, I thought Ui had problems keeping her mouth shut, but looks like it runs in the family.

“Thanks for taking care of Yui-chan for us!” yet another girl yelled out.

Huh, it seems like this class is tight together, and it also looks like Yui is one of their favorites. It’s actually kinda sweet.

“Ah, yeah, don’t mention it,” I said unsurely.

Ugh, even though this attention wasn’t the negative kind, I still couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous. How long before they connect my school uniform to that crowd that’s always hanging out next to their marathon route? Ah, shit, and here comes a teacher, on top of all that. Hold on, that’s Sawako, carrying a pile of cardboard boxes. Phew, I thought I was gonna get in trouble, but guess not.

“Guys! The costumes are ready!” she announced.

After some students took the boxes from her hands, she sighed tiredly, and directed her attention at me. “Ah, Sugimoto-san, fancy seeing you here.”

“Yeah, hi. Just decided to drop by and see what all the fuss is about,” I said, nodding towards the classroom.

Sawako just smiled, putting her other hand on her hip. “You know, now that the girls have got their costumes, I’d suggest for you to make your leave, if you understand.”

Yup, I understood it very well.

I snapped my fingers, pointing at Sawako. “You know what, lady? That’s actually a damn fine idea, I’ll do just that, see you later, break a leg!” I said in a quick succession, before heading off, my companions skittering after me.

A cluster of goodbyes could be heard from behind me. I only waved my hand for an answer, continuing on through the hallway.

Azusa glanced at the classroom over her shoulder, and then at me. “…I guess you don’t like being the center of attention?”

“What, really? I never noticed,” I remarked sarcastically, looking outside the hallway’s windows as I walked.

I’m sure Azusa didn’t appreciate my sarcasm, but she didn’t care to comment on it, which was just fine by me.

“Ah, that’s right. Eiji-kun’s shy, remember?” Jun snickered.

“You know what? You come to my school and have a bunch of guys stare at you, and we’ll see who’s shy,” I muttered in a low voice, unamused.

We got to the fences, slipping past them, and were once again on a public area. I saw Ui taking a look at my frowning face, and thinking about something.

“H-How about we go and get something to eat?” she suddenly suggested, probably to change the subject.

The idea suited the rest of us, so we head off, roaming around the festival area. In the end, we decided to eat some crepes. They were rather good, I must say.

After wasting some time by having fun around the festival area, it was time for the play to start. However, when we got to the auditorium, we quickly noticed how crowded it was. Luckily Sawako had saved some seats for us, so we didn’t need to stand. It wasn’t long before the lights went out, and the curtain rose. Sure enough, it was just your typical school play, though Mio’s acting was above average. And Yui, well, was a tree. A very distracting tree, in fact: I just couldn’t help but stare at the tree with a face. Though, she was a good tree. And at one point she was a bush. Huh, what a multi-skilled gal. By the end, the stagehands’ performance seemed a bit rushed, almost as if there was something going on behind the stage. Whatever it was, they pulled it off, and managed to finish the play. Honestly speaking, I’m not sure if this was worth skipping school. Oh well, at least I got a chance to hang out with the gals.

I felt like now would be a good time to head back home, as the festival would be ending for today in just an hour. The gals and I said our goodbyes to each other, and I headed home, getting there after half-an-hour of walking. I quickly got up to my room before my parents would notice that I wasn’t carrying my school bag, which would raise suspicions. I changed into my casual attire, and headed back downstairs to make myself some afternoon coffee. I spent the next hour browsing the internet, looking at nothing in particular. I also realized I forgot to buy that chocolate for Tamiko. Though, she seems to be taking her time getting home…

As the afternoon was slowly turning into evening, the sky being filled with hues of orange, I decided to lie down on my bed whilst listening to a rock album currently blasting from my speakers. It was one of the albums Ui gave me for a birthday present. Hm, two and a half years… Actually, almost three years since we met for the first time. She has learnt about me, about my past, about who I am, and she still likes having me around. She sure is a sweet and caring gal. Maybe I should’ve taken my chance today…? Nah, probably not.

My thought process was cut short when my phone began vibrating on my computer table. With a tired sigh, I got up, walked over to it, and picked up my phone. Huh, Yui was calling me?

“What’s up?” I answered the phone.

“Eiji-kun, now’s your chance!”

My legs almost gave up, but luckily I managed to take a hold of my chair before crashing down on the floor.

“A… A what now?” I stuttered confusedly.

I could hear Yui chuckling determinedly. “Now’s your chance to come and play with us!”

“Play with you guys?” I asked, slowly taking a seat on the chair.

“That’s right! Remember when I suggested that you could play with us sometime, and you said maybe? Well, now you can do it!” she explained.

Oh, so she wasn’t reading my mind… “…Where, exactly?”

“At our club room, of course!” she said, and elaborated: “We’re going to stay here and practice until the morning. So, I thought it’d be no problem for you to come here.”

“You thought, huh…?” I muttered, scratching my head. “Did you at least tell the others about your idea? I’m not coming there just to get kicked out.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I could hear Ritsu reassuring from a bit further away.

“Yes, Eiji-san. And we have lots of tea and cake!” That was undoubtedly Tsumugi.

“I want to see you play, Eiji-kun!” Ah, and there’s Ui.

I scratched the side of my head, thinking. Alright, just because they’re fine with it, doesn’t mean the teachers are. If I get caught trespassing at an all-girls school after-hours, there’ll be hell for me to pay… But, assuming I won’t get caught, I think it’ll be fun to play with Yui and her club, though I doubt I’ll ever be as good as them. And besides, when has sneaking into an all-girls school never been exciting?

I sighed, and nodded to myself. “…Fine, alright. But obviously I can’t just march in through the front doors.”

“Oh, that’s right…” Yui muttered, as if she just realized it herself.

“Ah, maybe Sawa-chan can help?” Ritsu suggested. “If you’re accompanied by a teacher, it raises less suspicion.”

“Well I’m not exactly sure about that, but… Eh, fine. I’ll be there in about half-an-hour,” I said, standing up.

“Okay. Oh, and bring Patricia with you!” Yui told me.

I glanced at the guitar in the corner of my room, snorting amusedly. “Yeah, Patricia’s coming.”

Ending the call, I stared at an empty space for a few seconds before getting to work. I got dressed in my red hoodie, packed my guitar in a gig bag, and headed downstairs to get my shoes on. However, my mom just happened to be making dinner in the kitchen, and noticed me.

“Hm, where are you going with your guitar?” she asked me.

“Just going to my friend’s place to play,” I said, since it was technically the truth.

Mom nodded, returning her attention to her cooking. “Very well, then, but you’re going to miss dinner.”

“I know, I’ll eat it later,” I said as I was getting my shoes on.

My father, who was watching TV in the living room, said: “Be careful out there.”

“Huh? Why?” I asked.

“They talked about some juvenile gang causing troubles around the town on the news the other day,” he explained.

I got my shoes on, and stood up. “You know I can take care of myself.”

“Hm, right, I know that very well…” he muttered.

As I exited the house and got off the porch, I looked up to the sky, which was slowly turning from orange to purple. Fixing the position of the gig bag on my back, I headed off towards the Sakuragaoka High School, for the second time today. This idea is honestly very stupid, but then again, most of the things I’ve done for the past few years have been stupid. And besides, they said Sawako would be there to help me get inside, so maybe it’ll be fine… But will it really? I’m still a teenage guy, no matter whether a teacher is with me or not. Well, too late to back off now, so I’ll just get through with this.

The sky was already showing darker shades of blue as I got to Sakuragaoka. The main gate, of course, was closed, but not entirely. There was a small gap that allowed me to slip through it. All of the stalls in the yard had closed. There was no one else but me there, or at least I think so. I hope so. As I walked through the yard towards the school building, I was overcome by this empty feeling. There were hundreds of people here having fun just a few hours ago, and now it was eerily quiet. Well, it’s only natural, and tomorrow’s another festival day. But still, due to this silence, I’d probably shit my pants if another person suddenly appeared to—

“Ah, Sugimoto-san, there you are.”

Flinching a bit, I turned to face the voice. Luckily it was only Sawako, standing near the school’s main doors. I’ve got to stop thinking about stuff too much because I clearly can’t concentrate on my surroundings.

I walked over to her. “Hi, again.”

She smiled a bit. “The girls told me about the plan. Honestly, this is very bold of you, but as long as there’s no harm in it, I’m happy to help.”

No harm, except for breaking the rules, and you risking your job…

She glanced at the building behind her. “Well, almost all of the teachers should be at home by now, and there’s only a few students getting things ready for tomorrow. As long as you stay in the club room, everything should be okay.”

“Right, got it,” I nodded.

“Well, then. Follow me. Oh, and let me do the talking,” she said, beckoning for me to follow her.

Do the talking? The hell does that mean? We stepped inside the school’s darkened entrance hall, walking through it towards the stairs. All of a sudden, Sawako began talking.

“I’m so glad you could come on such a short notice! The amplifiers just suddenly stopped working, and we don’t have time to get replacements!” she said, sounding worried, but clearly just acting.

I was wondering about why she was doing such a thing, until I realized to take a glance to our side, and saw the security guard’s booth. Inside it was the security guard himself, looking at us from the corner of his eye. Ah, of course. I quickly but subtly turned my gaze away from him.

As we got to the stairs and walked them up, Sawako continued with her acting: “I was getting desperate, but then I happened to remember that you’re the expert when it comes to musical equipment! Oh, and sorry for asking for you to come here right after your guitar tutoring, you didn’t even have time to go home and drop off your guitar!”

This lady sure is something different, huh? It was actually kinda amusing, and I had a hard time trying to prevent myself from grinning like an idiot. But it clearly did the trick, since we made our way to the second floor without the guard stopping us. And that’s where we stopped, after Sawako made sure the coast was clear.

“Well, that’s that, then,” she spoke in a low voice. “Just these stairs up, and you’re there, but I’m sure you already know that. I’ve got to get back to making the costumes.”

“Costumes?” I asked.

“Yes, costumes for tomorrow’s concert. I have a lot of work to do. Well, bye for now,” she said with a wave of a hand, and began walking through the hallway.

I answered the gesture. “Yeah, thanks, see ya.”

I looked up at the dark stairwell, and walked up to the third floor. The sound of my footsteps echoed irritatingly. And there it was, the club room. The door was closed, but I could clearly see light shining through the door’s window, and I could hear the girls talking and laughing inside. It’s moments like this that make me wonder how stupid it would be to just turn around and head back home without a word just for the hell of it. I had no such plans in my mind, though, so I grasped the door handle, and opened it.

“Evening,” I greeted the ladies.

The girls were sitting on a blue blanket in the middle of the floor, having a picnic of some sort. Aside from Yui and her club, Ui and Jun also were there. Oh, and Tamiko, too. Explains why she never got home. Their conversation died down the second I opened the door, but luckily it was followed by a pleasant atmosphere.

“Ah, so the guy actually came,” Ritsu remarked.

“My name is Sugimoto Eiji, son of Sugimoto Taiki, born in northern Iwate and raised in this town, just so you know…” I muttered sarcastically as I took off my shoes, placing them next to the door.

“Oh, you brought Patricia!” Ui said, sounding strangely excited.

I took the gig bag off my back, placing it next to the wall. “Uh, yeah, I did.”

Before I had the chance to open it, I noticed Tsumugi raising her teacup. “We’re having a snack break right now. Please, join us.”

“Hm, I might as well do that,” I nodded.

There was an empty space between Ui and Yui, so I sat down between the sisters. Yui picked up a lunch box from the ground, showing its contents to me. It was filled with neatly done rice balls.

“Here, Eiji-kun. I made a lot of these, so eat up,” Yui explained, cocking her head with a smile.

Hm, she made these? When did she have the time to do so? And why was she acting like that? Eh, whatever, guess I’ll bite.

“Oh, okay, thanks,” I said, taking one of the rice balls.

As I took a bite out of it, everyone seemed to… stare at me? What the hell, what’s in this thing? Wait… It’s… It’s good. It’s very good.

“Huh,” I muttered as I swallowed the piece. “You know, Yui-san, you’ve gotten a lot better at cooking.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Ui next to me flinch a bit. “Eh? You mean me?”

“What? No, I was talking to Yui-san. Your food has always been great, Ui-san,” I explained, confused a bit. Why did Ui think I was talking to her?

I examined the half-eaten rice ball in my hand, and as I was about to take another bite, I stopped as I noticed the other girls around me. They all were staring at me dumbstruck, being both surprised and shocked. Seriously, what the fuck was going on!?

Too many seconds passed, until Jun muttered: “…So he really saw through it?”

“Yeah, it seems like it…” Tamiko added.

I had enough of their shit. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Um, Eiji-kun…” Ui called for me, so I turned to face her.

She was staring at me, speechless. I couldn’t help but stare back. For fuck’s sake, what the hell was going on? Was there something on my face? Was my fly open? No, wait, did I forget my pants at home? Though, I’m sure Sawako would’ve mentioned it if anything about my appearance was wrong…

Wait a second… I turned to look at Yui to confirm my suspicions. Huh, I see what’s going on.

I snapped my fingers. “Oh, now I get it, you guys switched your hairstyles. I didn’t notice it before.”

Sure enough, Ui had her hair down and was wearing Yui’s hairpins, while Yui’s hair was tied into a ponytail, the same kind Ui usually has.

And now, the silence was even more strange than before. Though, it didn’t last long.

“Wait! You mean, you recognized them!?” Ritsu snapped.

“Uh, yeah, I did. Why, what’s wrong?” I asked, taken aback a bit.

She was grinding her teeth out of frustration, and pointed at the Hirasawa sisters with both of her hands. “Just look at them! How can you tell them apart!?”

Puzzled, I looked at both of the Hirasawa sisters, who were in turn looking at me, equally surprised. Ah, taking a closer look, they have switched their ribbons. Also, Ui’s wearing Yui’s tights.

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I admit, they have lots of similar attributes.”

“Similar!? They’re almost twins, you…!” Ritsu yelled, but stopped, trying to calm down. Why’s she so riled up about this?

Mio, who was a lot calmer than Ritsu, but still seemingly astonished, leaned forward a bit. “So, how can you tell them apart?”

“How?” I muttered, taking another look at the sisters, and shrugging. “I don’t know. It’s the small things, I guess.”

“Like what?” Tsumugi asked, clearly interested.

Shit, why is this such a big deal…? “Well, their voices are audibly different, that can’t be denied. Also, Ui’s hair is a lighter shade of brown than Yui’s, and her face is also a tad narrower.”

The girls looked at each other, still puzzled, and Azusa asked: “When did you absorb such facts?”

I just shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just spent enough time with them.”

That if anything was a lie. Of course I absorbed those facts on purpose a couple of years ago, because I just knew something like this would happen sooner or later. Back then, whenever the Hirasawa sisters were looking away from me, I used the opportunity to scope them out for any small details I could use to tell them apart. And yeah, I’ve got to admit, there’s not many of those. These gals are practically twins, as Ritsu said earlier. As the time went on, I learned the ways to tell them apart, and soon enough I could do it by nature. But I guess I’ve gotten used to it, since the other girls’ reactions confused me at first.

Ui giggled as she took the hairpins off. “You’re right, Eiji-kun, it’s me.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, finally eating the rest of the rice cake in my hand.

“Aw, I thought it’d be a fun prank…” Yui muttered as she was untying the ponytail.

“Gal, if you wanna prank me, serve me a decaffeinated coffee,” I said, sucking the few grains of rice stuck to my fingers, and was quick to correct myself: “It was a joke, don’t actually do that, or I’ll be really pissed.” It was met with a few chuckles.

The rest of the snack break was spent relatively peacefully. I ate whatever was available, and drank Tsumugi’s tea, which was really good. I tried to contribute to the girls’ conversations whenever I could, but mostly I just stayed quiet and only observed. Even though I was invited, I still felt like the third wheel… Well, actually the 9th wheel, to be precise. To my surprise, Yui seemed to notice my absent expression.

“Ah, should we play something?” she suddenly suggested, cutting everyone off.

Ritsu slammed her fist on her palm. “That’s right, we’re here to practice, aren’t we?”

“Don’t tell me you forgot about that…” Azusa muttered, unamused.

“Oh, yeah, that too,” Yui muttered, as if having just remembered that, and shook her head. “No, I mean with Eiji-kun.”

I knew we were going to play, but I still couldn’t help but feel a bit surprised.

“Why, that sounds wonderful,” Tsumugi said happily.

“Yes, but, what should we play?” Mio thought to herself, and turned to me. “Do you have anything in mind?”

“Uh, no, not really,” I said, shaking my head. “I know a few songs, but I don’t think you guys know them.”

“So, should we just jam, then?” Azusa suggested.

We all looked at each other, and everyone seemed to be fine with the idea.

“Alright, then!” Ritsu yelled determinedly, jumping on her feet. “Yui, go get the third guitar amp from the storage room!”

“Roger!” Yui said with a salute, got on her feet, and hopped over to the other side of the room, where I presumed the storage room to be at.

While the girls got to work and began setting the instruments up, I walked over to the gig bag, laying it down on the floor, and opening it. Inside was my root beer colored Yamaha Pacifica, though I call it just Patricia, thanks to Yui. I crouched down to pick it up, tuned it quickly, and stood up. The girls were already all set up, and were waiting for me to join them. I was directed to the front of the crew, next to Yui. I plugged my guitar in, checked the sound (it sounded sweet) and we were ready to rock. Ui, Jun and Tamiko had moved themselves to the bench right across from us. A rather small audience, but it’s still something.

“Okay, Eiji-san. Start playing something, and we’ll join you,” Ritsu instructed me.

“Something, huh…” I muttered, glancing down at my guitar, not sure in which chord I should place my fingers.

“Don’t stress over it. Jamming’s about improvising, after all,” Mio reassured me. “It can be from a song that you know, if you can’t come up with anything.”

I looked at her, and then at the other girls, who all seemed eager to play. Better start playing something soon, or this’ll get awkward. Eh, fuck it, I’ll just play the bridge part of that rock song I was listening to the other day…

Starting from C-sharp minor, I began playing, moving straight to B and then A, and so on. Ritsu was the first to join me with her drums. The beat was right, but the playing was calm. It was followed by Mio, who quickly managed to get the right sounds out of her bass to match my chords. Tsumugi joined with her keyboard, the sound being a synthetic piano one. Even though there was no such thing in the original song, it still fit in very well. Yui and Azusa joined with their own guitars. Azusa strummed along the song, mimicking my guitar, almost as if creating echoes for it. And Yui, on the other hand, began playing a solo. A completely improvised one, that is. And fucking hell, did it fit in surprisingly well! And that’s how we played for the next few minutes. From time to time, someone would take the song to another direction, and the rest were quick to follow. I don’t care if it didn’t sound good, I don’t care if anyone was out of rhythm, because I had a whole lot of fun.

A whole hour passed as we played, ate snacks, and just generally messed around, before we decided to call it quits. Well, it was actually Jun who decided on that by almost falling asleep. Ui, Jun, Tamiko and I said our goodbyes to the others, who were going to spend the night at the club room to practice for tomorrow’s concert. And with that, we left the room, walking down the stairs to the first floor. As we got there, I gave a quick look at the security guard, who was looking back at us, but not saying anything, though I’m pretty sure he knew what was going on. The girls changed their shoes, and we headed out. The whole time the girls were talking about today’s events and what to do tomorrow. I spent my time looking at the darkened town around us, occasionally adding something to their conversation.

Tamiko was the first to leave the group as we walked past the train station. Sure, I could’ve also gotten on the train and used it to get home, but as I’ve stated before, I don’t really care for public transport. Not too long after that, Jun also left us, leaving just Ui with me.

“You know, I completely forgot to ask this, but… do you have any idea why they did such a thing?” I asked her.

She cocked her head. “What thing?”

“Inviting me over to play, even though they’re supposed to be practicing,” I elaborated. “I can’t help but feel I kinda wasted their time.”

“Eiji-kun, you shouldn’t say things like that,” Ui said, frowning a bit. “If you really want to know, it was sis’ idea. The others weren’t so sure about it at first, but then she told them about how gloomy you seemed back when you all went to that music store, and you told about how you’ll probably never again play in a band.”

“Yui-san said that?” I muttered, and smiled a bit. “Hm, I see.”

We kept walking in silence for a moment. I had already gotten used to having someone talking, so I tried to spark up a conversation.

“So, how was it? My playing, I mean.”

“Ah, it was great!” Ui said excitedly. “You looked really cool!”

I scratched my cheek sheepishly. “Thanks. Though, I doubt I’ll ever match your sister or Azusa-san.”

Ui shook her head. “That’s not important. All that matters is that you give it everything you got, and that it’s fun to you.”

Millions of music critics around the world would like to disagree with you, gal… Whatever. That sweet, positive and optimistic attitude is something that never fails to cheer me up.

After walking a bit more, we came across that same, old bridge. Ui would go across it to her neighborhood, while I’d continue along the river to mine.

“Well, see you tomorrow! Good night, Eiji-kun,” Ui bid me farewell.

I waved my hand. “Yeah, night.” I then resumed walking.

But I quickly stopped as I realized my footsteps were the only ones I heard. Confused, I turned around, finding Ui still standing next to the bridge, facing me. The street light illuminated only half of her face, but I still could clearly see that she was lost in thought. As she noticed that I was looking back at her, she flinched a bit. What’s this about?

“Um, Eiji-kun?” Ui finally asked me.

“Yeah?”

Ui looked at the river, slowly flowing under the bridge, and then at me. “…Is it true that, uh, earlier today…”

“…You asked for a ‘cute, ponytailed girl’ to bring your order?”

I thought about what to say, but in the end, I only managed to shrug. “Maybe.”

“O-Oh? Well, um…” Ui muttered, rubbing her hands together sheepishly, maybe thinking of something to say.

However, she suddenly chuckled embarrassedly. “N-Nothing, never mind. Good night!”

And suddenly, she was off, crossing the bridge at a swift but calm pace. I watched as she got over the bridge, before finally turning around and heading home. So, she knew. Did she hear about it just a couple of hours ago, or has she known ever since I made that dumb request earlier today? Well, no matter whenever she heard it, she’s hidden her reaction pretty well until now. I guess she was waiting for the two of us to be alone until daring to ask about it. But, I’m not entirely sure what to make of that reaction. Sure, she was clearly sheepish, maybe a bit embarrassed, as anyone would be, but… in what way? Good? Bad? What was she even about to say? Thank you?

Ugh, fuck, I’m overthinking it again! I only indirectly called her cute, what’s the big deal? I mean, she is cute, but that’s not really something you can say to a girl just like that, no matter how long you’ve known each other. But, as Tadaaki said, subtle flirts and all that… But what the fuck does he know? What do I even know? Nothing, absolutely nothing, and that’s why I’m overthinking stuff! Tomorrow’s going to be another festival day. I really need to pull myself together by then, or I won’t be able to be near Ui. But, will she be able to be near me, or…?

What’s done is done. I’ll just suffer through the consequences, just like I’ve done many times before. It’s not the end of the world, I doubt she outright hates me over it. And besides, well…

…I’m kinda happy that she heard it.

Chapter Text

Waking up for no particular reason, I slowly opened my tired eyes, staring at my dark ceiling, only ever so slightly illuminated by the light shining from above the curtains. I closed my eyes again and rolled over to my side, trying to fall back asleep, until I realized something, turning to look at the window. It indeed was light outside. Thinking about it for a few seconds, I sat up with a grunt, got on my feet and slowly but surely made my way to the computer table to check my watch. Huh, only 10am. So I didn’t oversleep. I mean, sure, I overslept in a sense, today’s a school day after all. What I meant was the Sakuragaoka festival.

Walking over to the wardrobe, I put on my red hoodie and the other usual shit. I then stopped by the bathroom before heading down to the kitchen to make myself some breakfast, yawning all the way. Only one to greet me downstairs was Dash, who just gave me the quietest bark as a sign that she acknowledges my presence. Giving her a similar sounding grunt for an answer, I slipped into the kitchen and began making myself some coffee.

I had a good excuse for waking up so late. Yesterday, at Yui’s club’s room, Ui and I talked about today. Apparently, Ui and the others had a morning shift at their stall, so we agreed that it’d be better if I came later so that I wouldn’t have to spend too much time alone. But there was also another reason. I didn’t get much sleep last night, you see. Because of what happened last night. It was nothing too bad, now that I think about it, but it still kept me awake. Ui asking about me requesting a ‘cute, ponytailed girl’ to bring my order, and her weird reaction after I kinda admitted it. I’m still not sure if the reaction was good or bad. And, well, I’m kinda nervous about seeing her today. It’s the same nervousness I felt after getting that kiss on the cheek from her on my birthday.

After eating the rest of my sandwich and gulping down my coffee, I got my shoes on and was quickly off to Sakuragaoka. Sure, I was a bit ahead of the schedule, so I’d have to wait for a while before the girls’ shift ends, but whatever. The festival has a lot to offer. Maybe I’ll check out the places I haven’t paid much attention to before.

Roughly half-an-hour later I came across a familiar scene: the festival. The stalls, the noise of the crowd, the colorful decorations… It’s always the same, but damn, it’s still as awesome as many times before. Checking both my watch and the school building’s clock, I noticed that I still have an hour to kill before meeting up with the girls. Well, off to roam I go, then.

Minutes passed as I walked around the campus, dodging people, and glancing at the different stalls and activities. None of them seemed to interest me at the moment, but maybe they’ll be more fun with the gals. However, there was one stall that I absolutely couldn’t help but to submit to, and it was the slushie stall. If there’s one beverage I like more than coffee, it’s slushies. I usually get a multi-colored one, but this time I felt like having a simple, orange slushie. Sipping my cold and tart drink, I took one last look around me, before deciding to head inside the school building.

I stood in the entrance hall, glancing at the hallways. One of them held Ui’s class’ stall. I didn’t feel like visiting it again, and it’d be kinda awkward if the one greeting the customers at the door was someone I knew, so I decided to not go there for now. My eyes were drawn to the stairs in front of me. Hm, sure, a part of the second floor is closed off from the visitors, but not the whole floor, meaning there’s still some stalls up there. I didn’t get a good look at them yesterday, so might as well do it now, since I had nothing better to do.

Climbing up to the second floor, I picked the wing which wasn’t closed off, and began slowly making my way through it, glancing at the classrooms. Food, food, haunted house, some astrologic bullshit, beverages, food… Ugh, it’s kinda all the same. I didn’t feel like wasting my money on any of them. Maybe I should head back outside and to the auditorium. Now that I think about it, I haven’t really seen the other performances there. They can’t be that bad… Hold on. Occult Club? The sign somehow just caught my eye. Well, that’s something new.

UFO sightings, ghost encounters, unexplained historical events… This world of ours is full of mysteries. Is there anything specific that you’d like to ask about? Have you ever experienced anything paranormal? Has a spirit spoken to you in your dreams? Come on in and share your experiences with us, and we’ll be happy to offer you an explanation and guidance!

Huh, quite a sales speech… Wait. That part about a spirit speaking in my dreams… Huh.

I sipped my slushie, slipping my other hand into my hoodie’s pocket. Taking a look at the door, I noticed that it was open, but also covered by a black curtain. Thinking about it for a few seconds more, I moved in front of the doorway, carefully moving the curtain aside. I was met with a completely black room. Or that’s what I thought at first. It only took me a second to realize that everything was just covered in black sheets, giving the illusion of being in a black, dark nothingness.

“Ah, welcome, come on in.”

I almost flinched as I realized there was someone standing right next to me the whole time. It was a rather short, dark-haired girl, wearing glasses and a black cloak. Her expression was calm, but there was some disruptive side to it that I can’t put my finger on. I guess the word I’m looking for is eerie. I noticed that I was still standing in the doorway, so I decided to take up on her offer, and stepped in. Now it was actually pretty dark, since there wasn’t light slipping through the doorway’s curtain anymore. That, however, didn’t last for too long, since I heard a click from the girl’s direction, and a string of small, blue and purple lights lit up on the walls. Though it provided some illumination, I still couldn’t see the whole room clearly. Alright, I’ve got to admit, it was kinda cool.

“Hello, and welcome,” the girl bid me, stepping in front of me. “What have you come to ask us?” Her voice was calm and low, almost monotonic.

I sipped my drink, thinking about how to express my question. The girl, however, didn’t give me any time to answer. Instead, she headed over to one of the black tables, and switched something on. The light hanging above the table turned on, showing the display under it. It was, uh, a small-scale model of an UFO abducting a cow.

“Would you like to know about the UFO sightings from the recent years?” she asked.

“Well, uh, no, but—”

Click.

Another light turned on all of a sudden, showing the display on the next table. It was another model, this time showing an… an alien overlooking the construction of a pyramid.

“Do you have questions about the many historical mysteries left unsolved?” she asked.

“Um, not really—”

Click.

Figures. A third light lit up, and our attention was drawn to the third table, and the display on top of it. This time it was… Huh, a pretty normal looking temple, actually. No, wait, there’s a ghost harassing the shrine maiden.

“Has there ever been a paranormal event that has left you unable to sleep at night? Something scary, something you can’t find a rational explanation for?” she asked.

“…No.”

Click.

And next up we have… Huh?

“Or, perhaps, would you like to talk about the…” the girl talked, but her voice quickly died down as she realized that nothing happened. The fourth light didn’t turn on.

We both kept staring at the dark space for a while. As the seconds passed by, I slowly sipped my drink, filling the awkward silence with the slurping sound. It made it even more awkward, which in turn made me want to laugh, but I kept my shitty grin in control.

“…Sorry about that, it tends to do that sometimes,” she finally said, sounding surprisingly calm, but I still could sense the slightest feeling of embarrassment in her.

She then dug out a flashlight from her cloak’s pocket and used it to light up the fourth table. The table held a model of our solar system, or so I thought until I took a closer look, finding many anomalies in between the planets.

“As I was saying, we can also offer explanations and predictions on astronomical events,” she said.

“…Was that it?” I asked.

“Was what it?” she asked back.

“With the presentation of your displays, I mean,” I clarified.

She nodded. “Well, yes. Why?”

With a sigh, I scratched the back of my head. “Because I’m not interested in any of those things.”

I kinda felt like an asshole for shooting her down like this, because it’s clear that much time and love went into making those displays, but I also didn’t want to waste too much of my time here.

“Oh? Alright, then,” she said, not looking too bothered by my words. “What would you like to ask about, then?”

I pointed at the doorway behind me with my thumb. “The sign said something about spirits in dreams. That’s the only thing that caught my eye,” I explained.

“Ah, that…” she muttered. “To be honest, I can’t help you with that on my own, I’m not specialized in subjects involving dreams and human psychology, you see.”

…Huh? I came here for nothing? Well, at least I didn’t have the chance to waste my money—

“But I am,” another voice suddenly spoke.

Flinching in surprise, I quickly turned to face the voice, finding another girl standing in the room. What the actual hell? Don’t tell me she’s been there this whole time. The girl stepped forward, and I noticed her wearing the same attire as the other girl. Not only that, but she also sported glasses and dark, shoulder length hair. What, is it some kind of a dress code for the Occult Club?

Click.

“Please, take a seat,” she said, pointing her hand somewhere. Her voice was calm and monotonic, just like the other girl’s.

Following the direction of her hand to the middle of the room, I found a short table, covered by a black cloth. It was surrounded by blue, dimly lit lights. Ah, that clicking sound earlier was probably those lights turning on, which is why I didn’t notice the table earlier. Even if you’re not interested in any of this shit, you gotta give them points for the presentation at least. 

I moved myself to the table, taking a seat on a black cushion. I sipped my drink one more time before setting it on top of the table. Meanwhile, the two girls moved to the opposite side, sitting down. One of them dug out a big crystal ball from somewhere under the table and set it down on top of it. The girls, however, just kept staring at the ball, almost as if waiting for something to happen. It took a short moment before one of them realized to smack the thing with her hand. The crystal ball began glowing. This time I almost lost it, but somehow, I managed to not even grin. Maybe it’s for the best, I don’t want these ladies to put some ancient curse on me.

One of the girls picked up some book, examining it. It was too dark for me to be able to make out what kind of a book it was. Meanwhile, the other one dug out a pack of cards. Even from my side of the table I could see that they were nothing but ordinary playing cards. She spread the cards on the table upside down, doing it in a simple and swift move. Hm, she must’ve had lots of experience on these kinds of things. Hold on… crystal ball and cards? Are they gonna tell me my fortune or something? Weren’t they just supposed to explain things to me? Or, well, I don’t know. They’re the experts, so I’ll just let them do their thing, I guess.

“Pick two,” she instructed me.

I eyed the cards on the table, and after a bit of pondering I picked two randomly. She didn’t tell me what to do with the cards, but I guess I should hand them over to her, so that’s what I did. It seemed to be the correct answer, as she took the cards, looked at them, and consulted the other girl with the book. I couldn’t make anything out from their quiet whispers. After looking at the book and the cards for a while, the girl turned her attention to the crystal ball, staring at it.

“Your dreams… There’s something with your dreams,” she said.

I was almost surprised, until I remembered that it was exactly the thing I asked about. Gal, give me something to actually write home about…

“I see…” the girl muttered, staring intensely at the crystal ball, meaning she wasn’t done yet.

“I see…a green light orb.”

My fucking heart just skipped a beat.

I leaned over the table a bit in surprise. “Y-You do!?”

The girl just calmly raised her hand. That single gesture told me to ‘shut the fuck up and sit your ass back down’, so that’s what I did.

She finally detached her gaze from the crystal ball, directing her attention towards me. “Would you like to share anything about it?”

“U-Uh, well…” I muttered, trying to gather my thoughts. “…The green light. For some reason, I always want to catch it, but I never succeed in it. And, well, there’s also these other, yellow lights, and… for some reason, they seem hostile, or something.”

You can’t fucking believe how long I’ve been waiting for to tell someone about these dreams. I’m pretty sure everyone else would’ve just taken them as nonsense. Hell, I don’t care if they’re taking it as nonsense, too. I just want to finally tell someone about it.

The girls looked at each other, and whispered something amongst themselves. When they seemed to be done, the card girl turned to face me once again.

“Pick one,” she instructed.

Looking at the cards again, I picked one randomly, handing it over to her. She looked at the card, consulted the girl with the book, and stared at the crystal ball. I was eagerly waiting for her to talk.

“When did you start having these dreams?” she asked me.

“A couple of years ago,” I answered.

Without moving her gaze from the crystal ball, she said: “Please, try to be more exact.”

Fuck, seriously? “Uh… I think it was the… The winter break almost three years ago, in my last year in junior high,” I said, digging my memory.

The girl nodded. “What happened back then?”

“…Uh, do I really have to say?” I muttered uncertainly.

“Well, you don’t have to be specific about it, if you really don’t want to,” the girl explained. “We’re just looking for a major event. Something big, some significant change in your life.”

Well, she’s kinda right. Something indeed happened back then. Something big, something significant.

“I, well… I befriended someone,” I confessed.

The girls looked at each other, and then at me. “Someone who’s special to you?”

It took me a second to nod. “…Yes.”

“Someone you treasure?”

“…Yes.”

“Someone you would consider a blessing?”

“…Yes.”

I was getting unamused at this point.

“But a blessing that you haven’t embraced entirely, as of yet?”

Now what the fuck is that supposed to mean? Not embraced entirely…? Wait, could it mean…?

…Maybe, just maybe.

“…Yeah, I guess.”

The girls whispered with each other once again, before turning back to me.

“Pick the card closest to you,” I was instructed.

A card closest to me… I guess it’s this one? I picked up the card, handing it over to the girl. She once again consulted the other one with the book. Seriously, what’s that book? And then she was back staring at the crystal ball. Guess I can do nothing but wait for her to talk.

“…Have you ever heard of talk about a guardian spirit in your family?” she asked.

A what now…?

I slowly shook my head. “…No, can’t say I have.”

“Well, it seems to be the case. The green light orb in your dreams; there’s a chance that it might be a spirit,” the girl said.

I cocked my head. “How the hell can you tell that?”

“The cards told me,” she explained.

The hell they did… Whatever, guess I’ll bite. Besides, something in that managed to pique my interest.

“…Okay. So, what does it mean?” I asked.

The girl fixed her glasses. “Think about it. It’s clearly connected to that major event in your life, no?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

“But,” she suddenly said, leaning forward a bit. “Have you ever thought about which one was there first? The blessing, or the spirit?”

…Wha—?

I didn’t even have time to answer, when the other girl with the book jumped into the conversation: “That’s right. You need sun for there to be light, clouds for there to be rain, night for there to be day, Cthulhu for there to be Nyarlathotep… What’s a blessing without an entity to grant it?”

What was that last one, again? Ugh, whatever.

“You mean… if it’s actually a ‘spirit’, it has been with me for way longer?” I asked.

The girls both nodded.

I slowly reached to scratch my cheek. “…And, it suddenly decided to appear in my dreams after granting me a blessing?”

“A blessing that you haven’t fully embraced,” one of the girls corrected me.

Since I probably looked like I had no damn idea what they were talking about, the other girl decided to elaborate: “Okay, think about this: It’s raining, and you give someone an umbrella as a gift. But they don’t use it, instead keeping it collapsed. Now, you would probably feel like mentioning about it to them, right?”

Again, I didn’t have much time to answer before the other one jumped in.

“And that’s why the spirit would appear in your dreams. Because you’ve yet to embrace the blessing it has granted you,” she explained. “Is it worried? Is it frustrated? That, unfortunately, we can’t tell.”

The other girl nodded. “But what we can tell is why it would appear in your dreams.”

“Which I already did,” the first one noted quickly.

“…Which she already did,” the second one added, a bit embarrassed.

“…Right,” I muttered. “And the yellow lights? What about them?”

Instead of answering clearly, the girl just said: “Pick the card furthest from you.”

A furthest from me? There’s a few of those, I can’t really make out which one of them is the furthest… I picked the one I thought was correct, handing it over to her. It was followed by the same procedure of examining the card, consulting the girl with the book, and looking at the crystal ball. Is that crystal ball really even necessary, or is it just for the show…? Wait, now that I’m looking at it too, it seems to be flickering ever so slightly.

“…”

The girl’s troubled expression bothered me. Almost as if she was struggling with getting an answer out of that damn ball. Or, perhaps, she got an answer, but is not sure what to make of it? Huh, now I’m getting troubled, too.

“The yellow lights…” she suddenly spoke.

I almost blurted out something out of impatience, but managed to keep my mouth shut, and just waited for her to continue.

“…They could be… curses.”

“…Curses?” I asked.

Shit, I don’t know why, but that sent chills down my spine.

She nodded. “Yes, curses. Or, cursed spirits. Hostile spirits. Entities that try to harass the green one. It’s possible that they’re trying to prevent the blessing.” Though both her face and voice were as calm as before, I could sense a bit more seriousness in her tone.

I fiddled with my drink’s straw, trying to think. “…Why the hell would they do that?”

“Because,” the girl with the book spoke, quickly turning the page. “…Everything must be in balance. A blessing is followed by an evil, trying to take it away. The greater the blessing, the greater the evil.”

For someone who’s not ‘specialized’ in these kinds of things, she sure has a lot to add.

The other girl nodded. “That’s right. Now, I’m not sure of your exact situation, but… Do be careful.”

Hold the fucking phone. Is she actually worried? “Why is that?”

“Because, the curses tend to be as powerful as the other spirits. If the spirit managed to grant you a blessing on this moral realm, there’s also a chance for the curse to be able to take it away.”

No, seriously. What’s that damn book all about!?

I nodded slowly, taking a careful sip from my drink, and setting my hands on my lap. “…Alright. So, what should I do?”

I was prepared to draw a new card from the table, but to my surprise, the girl actually had an answer: “Simple: embrace the blessing, before it’s taken away from you.”

“However, even then, the curse will take time to disappear. So be prepared to endure some scourges in your future.”

…Just to check, but this is still just a high school girl I’m talking to, right?

Trying to take all the information in, I finally nodded in agreement.

And, just like that, the crystal ball stopped glowing, as if sensing that the session was over. One of the girls stashed the crystal ball away, while the other one began clearing the cards from the table. Meanwhile, I just sipped my slushie, trying to make sense out of all of this.

“Ah—!” the girl gasped in surprise.

Two of the cards fell from the deck, landing straight in front of me. Without thinking about it much, I picked them up, and was about to hand them over to her.

“Wait!” the other one said suddenly. She dug out a small notebook from her pocket. “What cards are they?”

“…Huh? I thought this was already done,” I muttered. Besides, weren’t you the one who wasn’t specialized in this?

“Well, a small fortune for the go, I guess,” she said, raising the notebook, as if to hide her face.

I was kinda confused about it, until I saw the other girl… smiling?

“She’s picked up fortune telling recently, you see,” she explained, sounding a bit sympathetic.

I frowned a bit. “You mean to tell me that this whole thing wasn’t fortune telling from the beginning?”

The girl answered my frown. “Spiritual examination is not mere fortune telling. It’s an appreciated art that’s difficult to master, just so you know.”

And you do that appreciated art with ordinary playing cards…? I looked at the other girl, who seemed to be waiting with her little notebook. Ah, well, despite all the mystique and serious appearance, she’s just a high school girl. They tend to be into those sorts of things. I guess I’ll play with her just this once. I showed her the cards. She took a good look at them, and turned to look at her notebook.

“…Beware of… snow,” she read out loud. “…Or winter. Something to do with snow or winter.”

…Well, that was rather anticlimactic compared to what happened right before that. Guess she’s picked the fortune telling only recently, just as the other one said.

“…Right, I’ll keep that in mind,” I muttered as I handed the cards to the girl with the deck.

With the table cleared, I was about to stand up, until I realized something. “Oh, right, what’s this gonna cost me?”

“Ah, don’t worry about it, these sessions are completely free,” one of them explained.

“However,” the other one quickly said. “We also sell keychains and charms as mementos. 200 yens each.”

Of course they do sell something… Just as I was done rolling my eyes, the girl had already dug out a handful of previously mentioned trinkets, placing them on the table. I eyed them for a few seconds, and ended up picking a keychain with a demon face, since it reminded me of one of my favorite metal albums. I dug out a coin from my wallet, tossing it on the table.

I picked up my drink and stood up. “Okay, thanks for the, uh, advice.”

They both nodded.

“You’re welcome,” one of them said.

“Tread safely,” the other one added.

Giving them one last look from the corner of my eye, I walked to the doorway, moved the curtain out of the way, and exited the room. The brightness of the rest of the world blinded me for a second. Squinting my eyes, I sipped the drink, only to find it almost empty, so I gulped down the rest of it, and tossed it into a nearby trash can. I took a look at my watch, noticing that I still had some time to waste. Well, maybe I’ll just find a place to sit down. Sit down and think, that is. I was practically bombarded with information, and I needed some time to process it properly. So, guess I need to ‘embrace’ my ‘blessing’, huh… Oh, and beware of winter, heh.

As the clock finally hit 12am, Ui, Jun and Tamiko got on their break. As I was leaning against the hallway’s wall, waiting for them near their stall, I suddenly remembered my nervousness. Shit, that’s right. I completely forgot about Ui. What should I even say to her, or what should I answer to her in case she says something first? Or will she even say anything? Will she even be able to look at me? Is she even coming at all? Fuck, should I—

“Oh, Eiji-kun!”

Ah…!

I turned to look at my side, seeing three familiar girls skittering over to me.

“Hello, Eiji-kun!” Ui greeted me with a smile. “Ah, you were waiting for us? I hope you weren’t standing here for too long. I’m not sure if you know this, but lots of stalls change their menus activities on the second day, so we have lots of exploring to do. Oh, and Jun-chan heard about a stall selling homemade ice cream, so we’re planning on going there first!”

…She’s just her usual self!

As I was just standing there, staring elsewhere with a frustrated frown, Ui cocked her head. “Uh, Eiji-kun? Are you okay?”

“…Yeah, just tired,” I sighed, sweeping my palm across my face. “If you see any coffee stalls, let me know immediately.”

Of course she’s just her usual self. Whenever she has an unusually large mood change, like crying while watching a movie or getting angry at my bullshit, she’s always quick to recover. I bet she had forgotten all about her last night’s sheepishness by the time she got home. And I, once again, was overthinking stuff, making myself nervous over nothing. After assuring her that I was fine, we headed off to see what today’s festival had to offer.

An hour or so passed as we had fun around the school, eating all kinds of treats, playing different games, and generally just relaxing. I think the most memorable thing we did was visiting a small arcade stall with different kinds of games. Ui and I teamed up against Jun and Tamiko, and man, they didn’t stand a chance. In fact, our playing managed to get the attention of the other arcade visitors, and we were actually challenged a couple of times. We somehow managed to rise victorious each time. And, if that wasn’t enough, the students hosting the stall rewarded us with special prices. Gotta admit, it was the most fun I’ve had in a while.

We were walking outside, looking for the next activity to do. Meanwhile, Ui was still admiring her price. It was a discount coupon to a local game store. I also received one.

“Hmm, it’s been a while since I last visited a game store, I’m not sure what to get…” she muttered to herself.

I was about to tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about it for now, until I took a closer look at my own coupon. Damn, it expires next week! Alright, maybe there’s time for a bit of worrying.

After muttering a bit more to herself, Ui turned to face me. “Eiji-kun, should we visit the game store together next week? I think I’ll need your expertise.”

I shrugged. “Sure, why not. Maybe I’ll find something good for myself, too.”

Jun and Tamiko were walking ahead of us, both looking a bit annoyed.

“I’ve never understood video games, anyway…” Tamiko muttered.

“Ui’s so quick to learn. It’s impossible to beat her…” Jun added.

With an amused snort, I shoved the coupon back into my pocket, and continued with scoping out the surrounding stalls. We soon reached the end of the path, having walked across the whole front yard. And yeah, we didn’t find anything that caught our interests.

“Hm, should we see if there’s anything near the auditorium?” Tamiko asked.

Jun sighed, crossing her arms. “We already checked it out earlier. What about the second wing of the first floor?”

“That’s where we just came from,” I noted.

Ui, smiling a bit sorry looking, suggested: “How about we sit down and rest for a while, then?”

“Sure. My legs are tired, anyway,” Jun said, grinding her heel against the ground.

Tamiko was looking around, probably looking for some benches. But… her curious expression soon changed into a confused one. Not just confused, but worried. Ui and Jun noticed this, too, and we all turned to look at the direction of her gaze.

A bit further away, maybe fifteen meters or so. I saw three guys, teenagers probably. They were talking to one of the students. The student was leaning backwards against a closed stall. After a second or two, I finally realized that she was trying to back away. She was cornered by those guys. Her body language, her expression… they all indicated fear. I’m sure the people around them noticed this, but they didn’t care to intervene, though I’m sure it wasn’t for mere indifference. Those guys were obvious delinquents. Having processed the situation for long enough, I began to walk.

“A-Ah, Eiji-chan!” Tamiko called after me.

I knew exactly what she thought, but I paid her no mind. I walked slowly so as to not alert them too early. That’s also why I managed to catch a bit of their conversation.

“Come on, girl. I’m just asking for your name,” one of the guys insisted.

The girl was nervously glancing around her. “A-As I said, I’m busy, so if you could just let me pass…”

She noticed a crack between one of the guys and the stall, and was about to slip through it, until the guy slammed his hand against the stall’s support, cutting her path.

“Now, now, why all the hurry? You should relax a bit. How about me and the boys take you on a ride with our motorcycles?”

“…I said let me go!” the girl yelled, clenching her fists.

The third guy wasn’t so friendly, kicking the dirt on the ground out of frustration. “Shit, you’re just bothering the others with your yelling. How about we go somewhere else to talk?”

And that was about the point when I was so close to them that I could almost spit on their face. And that’s what I felt like doing, but maybe it’s best to try talking first.

“Yo, what’s up?” I greeted them loudly, getting their attention.

I took them by surprise as they turned to face me. Guess they really didn’t notice me walking this close to them. However, the confusion didn’t last long.

“We’re just having a conversation here, don’t bother us,” one of them said with the most half-assed smile.

Trying my best to keep my expression neutral, I glanced at the frightened girl, and then at the guys.

“Conversation? Guess you’re not very good at it, seeing as the one you’re talking to is trying to get away.”

The second guy kept leaning to the stall’s support, frowning a bit. “Just piss off, this has nothing to do with you.”

Ignoring his friendly request for me to vacate the area, I tilted my head backwards. “You seriously need three guys to get one girl? What, you all have only a third of a dick?”

I’m sure that wasn’t what they were expecting, as they were exchanging glances with each other.

“Or maybe two of you have one ball but no dick, and one of you has the dick but no balls…” I muttered to myself, though loud enough for them to hear.

One of the guys clenched his fist, and pointed at me. “Look, you fucker. Stop playing a white knight and get the hell—”

“Shut the fuck up already!” I yelled, cutting him off. “Let her go and stop being a fucking bitch!”

Having heard my yell, the few people around turned to look at us, finally noticing the situation. Though I usually don’t like causing a scene, right now I didn’t care much about such principles. As the guy leaning against the support directed his attention towards me, the girl finally noticed her chance, and made a run for it. Running a bit further away towards the crowd, she was finally out of the danger. That’s why I riled the guys up in the first place; so that they’d be too busy glaring at me to care about the girl. And, well, now comes the unpleasant part.

I felt my heart rate increasing as I was having a staredown with these aggressive looking guys. Guess no one likes being called a bitch, huh…? Wait, that third guy. He’s yet to say anything to me. Sure, he’s staring at me with a frown like those two other fucknuts, but he doesn’t seem too riled up.

After many tense seconds, he finally said: “…Sugimoto.”

Though it took me by surprise, I still managed to keep my poker face on, my eyebrows raising only by millimeters. I know better than to show any signs of emotion during situations like these.

“What, you know this dickhead or something?” one of the guys asked him.

Without averting his gaze from me, he answered: “That’s the psychopath from Yukinokawa.”

Psychopath from…? Oh.

Oh!

He’s one of Tsukuda’s henchmen. I actually knocked his head over back at the Winter Festival. Hm, no wonder he looked at me differently than the others, he actually knows me.

“...T-The one who beat Tsukuda up?” the guy asked him, and I could actually hear some worry in his voice.

Wait, these guys are Tsukuda’s tit suckers, too?

The third guy, all of a sudden, stepped forward, raising his fist. “Psychopath or not, there’s still three of us! Let’s just fuck him up and bail out of here!”

Aw, shit, I really wanted to avoid this… As I was busy sighing quietly, the guy charged forward. It caught me off guard, so I didn’t have time to react. Before I knew it, his fist already collided with my head. Well, forehead, to be exact. I’m sure it hurt him more than me. Nevertheless, it’s always unpleasant to get punched.

“E-Eiji-kun!” a worried yell could be heard from behind me.

The guy didn’t give me time to even blink, instead throwing his other fist at me in a swing. However, he was the kind of guy who would reach back before punching, so I had time to react and pull myself backwards, away from his fist’s course. As the fist missed my head, I took the chance, and quickly grabbed the guy by his collar. Giving him a nice, strong kick to the ankle to get him off balance, I pulled his collar with all my might, throwing him on his stomach to the ground. He was quickly struggling to get up, but I simply stepped on his back, canceling his plans. Now I had the advantage. I could’ve kicked his teeth in, I could’ve fucked him up real good. But, instead, I just crouched down, grabbing his wrist, and pulling his arm straight up. Though it doesn’t look like much, it actually hurts like a bitch, and struggling only makes it worse. He was quick to learn that, as the squirming stopped in an instant, and was replaced by quiet moans and grunts. Just to be sure, I used my other leg to step on his vacant arm, keeping it in place.

I turned to look at the other two guys. They had quickly become wary, though they were still standing there firmly. Hm, maybe a few encouraging words, and they’ll be off.

“Get going, now. Fuck off.”

…And no sign of movement. Figures. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple… Oh, wait, there’s actually movement, but it’s coming towards me. The other guy took a step forward, readying himself for attack. The third guy, the henchman, just stayed back, though I’m sure he’ll make his move too if this goes on for long enough. Shit, now what? I need to let go of this bastard under me to dodge that dickweed’s attack, but if I do that, he’s sure to jump on his feet and waste no time trying to beat my ass. I mean, yeah, one option is to stop playing defense and actually fight, but… I could feel Ui’s eyes peeled to my back…

I… I don’t want to fight… I wish I didn’t have to fight, but…

Letting go of the guy’s wrist, I clenched my fist. My vision was tunneling up, my heart was pumping like crazy. I was ready to punch the fucker’s face in the moment he steps in my range. There was no easy way out of this, these guys wouldn’t leave without beating me up first. And I wasn’t about to go down that easily.

...I’m sorry, Ui.

Chapter Text

Against my wishes, I had gotten myself into a tough situation with a bunch of delinquent guys, causing trouble at the Sakuragaoka festival. I had hoped that my intimidation would be enough to make them head off, but I was wrong. They only became angrier, and I was actually punched in the face. Sure, I could’ve just punched him back, but instead, I just pinned him to the ground. That seemed to rile the two other guys up even more, and one of them was charging towards me. I couldn’t see a peaceful way out of this. However, due to my survival instinct, I wouldn’t just let these fucks beat me up. The only way to protect myself is to… fight back. And to make matters worse, Ui was watching me. She would witness me beating the living shit out of these bastards. That’s not what I want, not at all, but… what other choice do I have!?

…I’m sorry, Ui.

“Why hello there, sugar tits! Nice weather for a festival, huh?”

…What?

Blinking to clear my vision, I saw how the guy, who was charging towards me only a second ago, was now in a chokehold. And the one doing it was Ichiro… Wait, Ichiro!?

“My, my, what’s all this ruckus about?” another sarcastic voice could be heard from further away. “Can’t you darn brats play nicely?”

That’s… I turned to face the voice, and indeed, it was Tadaaki. He walked over to the henchman guy, placing his elbow on his shoulder, forcing him to crouch down a bit. Tadaaki lowered his head to get a better look at the guy, and seemed to recognize him. He then proceeded to stare at him right in the eye.

“Come on, now. Fighting at a festival, really? Didn’t you learn your lesson last winter?” he muttered to him, unamused.

The guy under me was squirming to get himself free, so I stepped off of him. He quickly bounced back on his feet, but took a few steps back. Hm, guess he wasn’t sure what to do now that there were three of us.

I looked at the scene before me. Ichiro holding the guy in a light but firm chokehold, and Tadaaki intimidating the henchman guy simply by leaning against him… None of the harassers seemed too eager to fight anymore. I say this whole thing is pretty much done at this point.

Relaxing my fist, I said: “Now, I’m not sure about the whole ‘psychopath from Yukinokawa’ stuff. But, I can tell you one thing…”

I took a look at my friends, and then at the three frightened dickheads.

“…I never fought alone.”

Many tense seconds passed as we kept staring at each other. Though I felt much more at ease now that my two friends were here, my heart was still pumping like crazy. Finally, to my relief, the henchman guy shook Tadaaki’s elbow off his shoulder, taking a step back.

“Fuck it, let’s just get out of here before someone calls the cops.”

Ichiro took it as a sign to let go of the guy, who immediately backed away from him, heading over to the henchman guy. The one who was lying under me just a moment ago joined them too. After giving us careful but spiteful glances over their shoulders, the trio left the scene quietly and at a swift pace. The observing crowd made way for them, as if avoiding them like plague. The guys and I watched as they made their way towards the main gate, soon disappearing into the mass of visitors. So, that’s that, then. Fight avoided. And now, to ask the obvious question…

“What are you guys doing here?” I asked the duo.

Ichiro scratched the back of his head. “Well, we really wanted to visit the festival, so…”

He wanted,” Tadaaki swiftly corrected him.

“Hey, I didn’t hear any objections when we left the school!” Ichiro retorted.

Left the school? Ah, indeed, they’re in their school uniforms. But no bags. Or, well, they most likely took my example and left them in the club room.

I crossed my arms. “…Fair enough. And?”

“…And, when we arrived here, we decided to look for you and, well, take you by surprise,” Ichiro explained, and glanced elsewhere. “It was supposed to be a prank.”

Tadaaki nodded with a sigh. “But then, when we finally found you, you were standing on some guy while two other dudes seemed to be ready to rip your eyes out. It didn’t take much to figure out what was going on.”

“…Okay,” I muttered, nodding. “Thanks. Seriously.”

“Hey, anytime man,” Tadaaki said with a slight smile.

I looked at the guys, until I recalled something, and turned to look at the crowd. Since the situation was over, most of them had returned back to business as usual, though I could sense lots of them taking glimpses at me. That, however, wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking for the girl those cunts harassed earlier. To my surprise, she was still standing there, some meters away.

“Hey, you alright?” I called out for her.

No words came out of her mouth, but at least she nodded for an answer. Guess she got pretty scared there, huh?

I answered the nod. “Okay, cool. Just checking.”

“Rescuing maidens, huh?” Ichiro quipped, looking at the girl from the corner of his eye.

“Fuck you,” I told him off.

“Just kidding, just kidding…” he muttered under his breath.

I was thinking about saying something else to him, when I heard footsteps approaching from behind me. Turning around, I found the gals. And, well, all of them looked extremely worried, for obvious reasons. Ui especially, as she walked right in front of me, and carefully touched my forehead. Out of all of them, she seemed shocked the most.

“E-Eiji-kun… Are you okay?” she asked me.

“Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry about it,” I said.

Ui, however, kept her hand on my forehead, carefully feeling the area I was punched in. “Should we go see the nurse?”

“Nah, no need for that. Sure, it’ll sting for an hour or two, maybe a small bump will form, but that’s about it. As I said, don’t worry about it,” I reassured her.

Still looking a bit uncertain, she finally lowered her hand, taking a step backwards. Man, maybe I should let her worry just a bit. I don’t think she’s ever even witnessed any fights before, so of course it’s confusing for her to hear me say that it’s nothing.

I saw Tamiko rubbing her palm. “Eiji-chan…”

“Yes, I know, I know. I shouldn’t have done that, we should’ve found a proper authority to resolve the situation instead,” I muttered, glancing elsewhere.

“No, it’s not that,” she said to my surprise. “It’s… Well… You didn’t actually fight. Even though that guy hit you.”

…Oh? Ah, yeah, I guess I know what she means. Three years ago, that guy would’ve probably been collecting his teeth with broken fingers or something. But this time I only pinned him to the ground. Yeah, it’s a pretty big difference, I’ll admit. However, I would have fought them if Tadaaki and Ichiro wouldn’t have come to save me… Eh, whatever. No reason to ponder over what-ifs. It didn’t happen, so it doesn’t matter.

“Huh, right. I didn’t,” I said, having just realized it myself.

I turned to look at Jun. She seemed… well, worried, obviously, but not as shocked as the others. And I guess that’s because she’s seen me fight before. After glancing around for a while, a small smile formed on her face.

“…You know, Eiji-kun? You were the one to step in, while no one else did anything,” she noted.

“Ah, that’s right!” Ui said. “It was really brave of you, Eiji-kun.”

Geez, I can stand my ground in a fight, but I can’t help but to get embarrassed when receiving compliments.

“Aw, hell, just the usual…” I muttered, scratching my cheek.

I flinched a bit when I felt a slap on my back. It was Tadaaki.

“Still shy, aren’t we?”

I turned to glare at him. “Go fu— …I mean, shut up.”

That’s right. Gotta keep my language in check around the gals. Hopefully the guys will do the same.

“Ah, Tadaaki-san! Nice to see you again,” Ui greeted him.

“Yeah, hi. Just decided to drop by, it was kinda lonely without this guy,” he said, nodding towards me.

He then turned to look at Jun. “Ah, hey to you, too. Long time no see. Jun-san, right?”

“Oh, uh, hi,” Jun answered the greeting, not sure what to make of his social butterfly type of personality.

Tamiko just sighed. “So you two are also skipping school… Why are you guys always messing about?” she muttered.

“Aw, come on, now, little Tamiko. Who in the world would miss out on a festival like this?” Tadaaki said, grinning like an idiot.

With an amused snort, I turned to look at Tadaaki, but my eyes were inadvertently drawn to Ichiro, who was kinda just standing there. Ah, right. Only Tamiko is familiar to him. I mean, sure, he knows about Ui and Jun, but has never actually met them personally.

“Ichiro,” I called out for him, getting his attention.

I pointed at the girls, naming them: “She’s Ui-san, and she’s Jun-san. Gals, this is Makino Ichiro, my other best friend.”

Ui cocked her head with a smile as usual. “Hello, it’s nice to finally meet you. Eiji-kun has told me about you.”

“Oh, um, yeah, what’s up,” Ichiro answered the greeting, trying to keep his cool.

It was clear that he was nervous. Oh well, though I felt like teasing him about it, I decided to just let him be and get used to it on his own. And now that the introductions were done, it was suddenly quiet for a few seconds. The awkward kind of quiet. But, like an angel, Tadaaki quickly grasped the situation and decided to save us all.

“So, a festival. Damn, it’s a lot bigger than the one we have back at Kasumimashita. I bet there’s tons of stuff to do here.”

“Oh, yes. We were actually looking for the next place to visit,” Ui explained.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Ichiro scratching his ear, glancing behind him. “…You guys been to the pizza stall yet? I passed by it, and man, it smelled delicious.”

“Hold on!” Jun yelled all of a sudden. “There’s a pizza stall!? How in the world did we miss it!?”

I glanced at enthusiastic Jun, and then at Ui, smiling a bit. “Guess we’re having pizza next.”

Ui nodded, answering my smile. “Yes, seems like i—”

“You three! Hold it right there!”

Confused, we turned to face the voice. We found a very, very angry looking middle-aged guy, walking towards us in a swift pace.

“I heard about three young guys harassing one of our students! You’re coming with me, now!”

Huh, a teacher. Well, took your fucking time getting here, didn’t you? Before I had a chance to open my big mouth, the girls stepped forward and immediately began defusing the situation, explaining everything to the teacher. Meanwhile, I also decided to explain the previous incident fully to the guys, since I didn’t feel like keeping my two closest friends in the dark. The angry teacher managed to cause another scene, and we once again caught the attention of the nearby people. This time I actually cared about it, which is why I felt like getting the hell out of here.

The misunderstanding finally solved, we headed over to the pizza stall to grab ourselves a snack. We sat down on nearby benches to eat our delicious looking slices. Tamiko headed off to the faculty office to grab two invitation documents for the guys. Speaking of the guys, they seemed rather quiet after I told them fully about what happened. Tadaaki, especially.

“Tsukuda’s minions, huh…” he muttered, casually examining his pizza slice.

“Hm, can’t believe we’d hear about that fuck again,” Ichiro stated, and wasted no time with eating his slice.

“…Well, I’ve heard things about him,” Tadaaki continued. “After that, uh, incident at the Winter Festival, I kinda kept track of him to make sure he didn’t try to jump us.”

He stopped to glance at Ui and Jun, who were sitting on a bench next to us. They seemed occupied with talking about some inside stuff. After making sure that they weren’t listening to us, he continued.

“He hasn’t been seen at school since the start of the first semester. Nor his buddies. So, I thought I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. But now, I’m not so sure anymore.”

“Hm, what do you mean?” I asked him.

After a weirdly long pause, Tadaaki slowly shook his head. “…Nah, nothing. Just thinking.”

Really? It’s not like Tadaaki to leave his thoughts unvoiced… Well, if he says it’s nothing, then I won’t inquire about it. Instead, I directed my attention to the slice of steaming pepperoni pizza in my hands. Even though I’ve eaten lots of stuff today, I still can’t say no to something as beautiful as this. After taking a first bite, I noticed Tamiko appearing from the crowd of visitors. She walked over to us, handing over the invitations to Tadaaki and Ichiro.

“Oh, and Eiji-chan,” she spoke to me. “I happened to pass by a teacher, I think she’s Azusa-chan’s club’s advisor. She asked me if you were around, and when I said yes, she asked me to tell you to meet her at the Light Music Club’s club room as soon as possible. Apparently, they need some help with carrying the equipment to the auditorium.”

“Oh, is that so?” I muttered.

I took a look at my watch. Hm, still a bit under two hours until their concert starts. You’d think they’d use the time to practice as much as they can, but then again, they stayed here overnight. Well, whatever. Might as well do it. Maybe I’ll get a reward of some kind.

I turned to face the guys. “You’re coming, too.”

“Huh, why?” Ichiro asked.

“No way I’m carrying a bunch of amplifiers alone,” I said, taking another bite from my pizza.

“But… But I wanted to try that shooting game over there,” he muttered, frowning a bit.

I have him a light tap on the shoulder. “Later. It won’t take long.”

Tadaaki snorted with a grin. “Okay, sure. If you’ll treat me to one of those strawberry shortcakes later.” He pointed at a stall not too far away.

I just clicked my tongue, still munching on the pizza. “Maybe, we’ll see if you manage to not drop anything.”

“Ah, Jun-chan, you took a bite out of my slice!” Tamiko’s shocked yell could be heard.

Our attention was drawn to the girls next to us.

“I’m sorry, it just looked so delicious,” Jun apologized with a grin. “Here, you can take a bite out of mine.”

But Tamiko was having none of her bullshit. “But it has olives, I don’t like them!”

“N-Now, now, let’s just settle down…” Ui tried to soothe them, smiling nervously.

“Ah, I know! You can take a bite out of Ui’s slice,” Jun suggested as a desperate measure.

“…Eh?” Ui muttered confusedly.

The guys and I watched the girls’ commotion for a while, until Tadaaki turned to face me. “…Never a quiet moment, huh?”

“With these gals? You’d only wish,” I stated, returning to my pizza slice.

As I was sitting next to the guys, eating, watching the festival going around us, and listening to the girls’ bickering, I suddenly realized something: this is exactly the situation I was afraid of over two years ago. I was scared of Tadaaki and Ichiro finding out about Ui and the others. And I guess I was also scared of the opposite happening; of Ui finding out about those two knuckleheads. But now, with the guys and the gals sitting right next to each other, talking, laughing, having fun… It was a damn stupid thing to be scared of. They’re all my friends. Why the hell should I hide them from each other? If anything, it’s more fun to hang out in a group. And besides, Ui has already accepted me for what I am. Or what I used to be, come to think of it.

Having finished our snacks, the guys and I headed inside the school building. Through the entrance hall, and up the stairs. Our way up to the third floor was blocked by a fence, with a sign that said No visitors past this point! Well, our help was requested, so we just slipped by the fence without paying it much mind. And soon we were up on the third floor. The guys took a look at the three doors around us. One of them led to the roof, one of them was the music room, and the third one was, well, labeled as a storage room.

“Ah, is this it?” Tadaaki asked, meaning the music room.

I shook my head, grinning a bit. “No, the other one.”

“The storage room…?” he muttered, scoping the said door up and down.

“Well, it’s not like our club room is any better for a Coffee Club, either,” I noted, stepping forward and opening the door.

“Yo!”

Taking a peek inside the room, I saw all the girls, including Sawako, having tea around the table. The door opening took them by surprise, and for a second I was afraid about Sawako not having told them about me coming to help, but soon I realized that my fear was unnecessary.

“Yay, Eiji-san actually came! Saves us the trouble!” Ritsu celebrated sarcastically, throwing her hands in the air.

Yui slumped on the table, sighing out of relief. “Oh, thank goodness. It’s always such a hassle to carry the equipment…”

“…Yeah, you’re welcome, I guess,” I muttered, stepping forward. “I brought some hired muscle.”

“Hired? What are you gonna pay us with?” Tadaaki quipped.

“With those damn strawberry shortcakes, of course,” I quipped back with a snort.

“Oh, Eiji-kun, Eiji-kun!” Yui called out for me enthusiastically after having recalled something.

She picked up something from the table, and showed it to me. It was a white t-shirt, and printed on it was a purple star with the text HTT on top of it. HTT… Ho-kago Tea Time, their band’s name. Huh, it’s actually kinda sweet, I’ve gotta admit.

“Sawa-chan-sensei made these for us!” she explained.

I couldn’t help but smile at her excitement. “Huh, seriously? Damn, it looks cool.”

Yui held the shirt close to her chest, smiling. “Doesn’t it?”

I took a look at the musical equipment right next to us. Amplifiers, guitars, Mio’s bass, Tsumugi’s keyboard, and Ritsu’s drum set. Shit, even though the guys are here to help me, it’s still gonna be a chore to carry these all the way to the auditorium…

“Ah, you don’t need to worry about those just yet,” Sawako said, having noticed me eyeing the equipment. “The concert’s still a bit under two hours away.”

…Then why the hell did you ask for me to meet you here as soon as possible? I think the answer lies in that cup of tea in her hands.

“That’s right, we still have some time, so why don’t you boys sit down for a while?” Tsumugi suggested, standing up, and picking up the tea kettle from the table. “Would you like some tea?”

“Sure, sounds good” I nodded. Tsumugi’s tea is always wonderful, just like Ui’s.

I glanced at the guys behind me. They seemed to think about the offer.

“Tea, huh? I’m down with that,” Tadaaki said, and Ichiro nodded in agreement.

Guess we’re having a break before getting to work, then. Hopefully Ui and the others won’t mind us being gone for a bit longer. Since all the seats at the table were taken, we took a seat at the cushioned bench. Actually, we were instructed to turn it around to face the girls. Makes sense, it’d feel kinda stupid to constantly look around my shoulder while talking to them. Tsumugi served us tea, and sure enough, it tasted great. Even Tadaaki and Ichiro, who weren’t much of tea drinkers, seemed to enjoy it.

“Huh, is that a turtle?” Ichiro mumbled under his breath, having noticed the aquarium in the corner of the room.

Yui heard his mumbling. “Yes! It’s Ton-chan, it’s kinda like our mascot.”

“Oh, uh, cool,” he muttered, returning back to his tea, unsure what to think.

“You know, I’m not sure I get why you guys are here,” Azusa said, glancing at us from the corner of her eye. “We could’ve managed with the equipment ourselves.”

I sipped my tea and looked at her, unamused. “Hm? We can leave, if that’s what you want.”

“O-Oh, no, that’s not what I meant,” she stuttered, waving her hands. “O-Of course we appreciate the help, I’m just wondering.”

“Well, you could ask the lady sitting across from you,” I said, meaning Sawako.

Sawako just sipped her tea, leaning back on the chair. “Ah, well, I just thought that the girls could use the time to relax a bit. They’ve been practicing so hard up until now.”

“Sawa-chan, you’re amazing!” Yui complimented her.

“Yeah, Sawa-chan is the best!” Ritsu added.

The teacher seemed to rather enjoy the compliments, almost like it was ecstasy to her. Ah, so she asked for us to do all the work so she could get a pat on the back, huh… Sawako, however, saw me looking at her with my puzzled expression, so I turned my gaze away.

“Ah, by the way,” she said to me. Aw, shit. “Sugimoto-san… Or, actually, mind if I call you Eiji-san?”

“Huh? Oh, uh, no. Go ahead,” I said unsurely.

“Well then, Eiji-san,” she continued. “Back at the faculty office, I heard about three young men harassing one of our students at the festival area.”

The guys and I slowly turned to look at the girls, who were all staring at us, confused, probably thinking about something we really wouldn’t like them to think. After three whole seconds of awkward silence, we finally reacted.

“N-Now just hold on a god damn minute!” Ichiro yelled, almost tipping his tea cup over.

“You got it all wrong, it wasn’t us doing it!” Tadaaki added, having lost his usual coolness.

“Could you please not tell stuff out of context!?” I joined the guys, jumping on my feet.

Our protesting was cut off when Sawako began laughing. The girls were now even more confused, and the guys and I were getting nervous.

“Oh, my. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist…” she said, still chuckling, and sighed out of amusement.

Oh, so you just wanted to have fun at our expense… Fuck, that’s one, crooked teacher right there. Which is exactly why I like her.

After finally calming down, Sawako explained: “Of course it wasn’t you guys, no one’s claiming that. In fact, the other teachers acknowledge you three for stopping it. Great work on that.” She gave us a little thumbs-up.

After hearing that, I could finally sit back down with a sigh. “…Ah, okay. Good, I guess.”

“Man, that got me riled up for a second…” Ichiro muttered.

Tadaaki leaned a bit closer, whispering to me: “What’s up with that teacher?”

“Imagine a delinquent teenage girl, and then imagine her ten years later as a teacher,” I whispered back, since it was the best explanation I could come up with about Sawako, though I’m sure she’s never been an outright delinquent.

“Harassing…?” I could hear Mio muttering to herself.

“Stopping it…?” Ritsu added.

…Ah, yeah, guess there’s some explaining to do.

All of a sudden, Yui turned to face us, looking very excited and curious. “Eiji-kun! Did you fend off hooligans?”

I backed down a bit, careful not to spill my tea. “Uh, well, yeah, we did.”

“…How, exactly?” Mio asked.

I glanced at Mio and Ritsu. They were both looking at me, but their expressions were the thing that caught my attention. Unlike the rest of the girls, they weren’t as surprised as they were… worried. And, well, I guess they had a reason to be worried. They know what I was like in junior high, so hearing about me stopping a group of hooligans must’ve got them thinking about the worst.

I swirled my teacup, explaining: “…Well, I just happened to notice them, and realized what was going on, so I stepped in to stop them. I had to pin one guy on the ground, and—”

“Woah, you pinned someone to the ground?” Ritsu asked, now sounding more curious than worried.

“Uh, yeah, but in my defense, he hit me first,” I said.

“He hit you?” Mio blurted out in shock.

I nodded. “Right, but only to the forehead.”

Only to the forehead? Shit, it doesn’t make a damn difference to these gals. Anyway, I told them about how things were about to turn ugly, and about how the two guys sitting next to me popped in out of nowhere to save the day. And so the situation was over, with no violence used. Or, minimal violence, but anyway. I sneaked a peek at Mio and Ritsu, and it looked like it was the answer they were hoping to hear. Regardless, hearing about me getting punched and almost mangled had left them a bit shocked.

Azusa seemed to think about something. “What about Ui, Jun and Tamiko? They were with you, weren’t they?”

Ah, I guess it’s only right for her to worry about her friends.

“They’re fine, they were never in any danger. I wouldn’t let something like that happen,” I explained, which seemed to relieve Azusa.

“My, it seems that we have a group of heroes with us here!” Tsumugi said with her usual smile, putting her hands together.

She then stood up, walking over to the cupboard. “Actually, I have something I was saving for after the performance.”

Something she was saving for…? Oh. Oh no. Flinching, I took a careful look at Yui, who was glaring at me from the corner of her eye. Oh, fuck, she knows I’m about to take the snacks meant for her! Shit, even though she’s not one to hold grudges, I still don’t want her to look at me like I’m a piece of garbage for any amount of time.

“A-Ah, that’s a bit too much, you don’t need to bother,” I hastily denied Tsumugi’s offer.

She, however, crouched down in front of the cupboard, opening it. “Now, now, no need to be so modest. Of course good deeds need to be rewarded.”

Aw, shit… I noticed the guys looking at me strangely, so I subtly jerked my head towards Yui. As they turned to look at her, they seemed to realize what was going on, even Ichiro. I guess a girl’s menacing eyes are universally understandable to all guys.

“Yui-chan,” Tsumugi called out for the gal who was staring daggers at us. “Don’t worry, there’s still enough for all of us. I packed lots of these.”

“Oh?” Yui muttered, having instantly calmed down.

Phew, crisis avoided… At least that’s what I thought, until I saw Ritsu’s ominous grin.

“That means no seconds for us,” she noted in a low voice, not caring to hide her smug face.

You little piece of work…

“Oh…!” Yui gasped quietly, and once again turned to glare at us. God damn it!

…This needs to stop, and I know only one way to achieve that. Guess I’ll sacrifice myself for the greater good, though I’m not sure why it was I who needed to suffer.

With a sigh, I glanced at Yui. “…Okay, how about I’ll treat you to a cake later?”

“Ah, really? Thank you, Eiji-kun!” Yui thanked me, her menacing appearance replaced by a sweet smile.

I’m not even sure if she understood why I made that offer… Well, at least I saved the guys and myself. Tsumugi walked over to us with the treats. They were muffins. A damn big muffins, in fact, and in many different flavors. Man, they looked delicious.

She held the muffins in her hands, presenting them to us. “Here, these are for you. Choose the one you like the most.”

“Blueberry,” I called swiftly.

“Strawberry,” Tadaaki called next.

Ichiro, who was the slowest, took a look at what was left, and was pleasantly surprised. “Huh, raspberry? Cool.”

“Aw, those look so delicious…” Yui muttered, sounding a bit sorry. “Mugi-chan, can I have mine now?”

Tsumugi shook her head. “Only after the performance. Patience, Yui-chan.”

“Ah, that’s right, you guys are gonna hold a concert,” Tadaaki said, nibbling a small piece out of his muffin. “Eiji has always held your music in high regard, so I’m eager to hear it myself.”

Changing the topic from snacks to the performance piqued the girls’ interest.

“Oh, just you wait,” Ritsu said with a grin, leaning back on her chair. “We have the whole stage just for ourselves for thirty minutes, it’s going to be awesome!”

“Yeah, we’re going to play like never before!” Yui yelled determinedly, throwing her fist in the air.

However, she soon got an idea. “Oh, I know! Eiji-kun, come on the stage with u—”

“No,” I said swiftly, cutting her off.

“That’s right, Yui,” Mio said, turning to face her. “Besides, no sudden changes of plans.”

Azusa seemed to think about something. “Speaking of plans… Just to check, but Yui-senpai, you remember the songs we’re going to play, right?”

Yui just stared blankly nowhere in particular, the goofy smile frozen on her face. It was quiet in the club room.

“Y-You do remember them, right?” Azusa muttered, a mixture of frustration and nervousness in her voice.

Yui slowly reached under the desk, pulling out a pen and a piece of paper.

“…I’ll just quickly make myself a cheat note, don’t mind me…” she murmured under her breath.

“Y-Yui-senpai! You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Azusa snapped, jumping on her feet with a clatter.

The guys and I sat quietly on the bench, drinking tea, eating the delicious muffins and watching as the girls messed around, bickering and squabbling. I’m sure it was a weird experience for the guys. Over the years, I’ve kinda gotten used to these lively girls and their buffoonery. Sure, they can be a bit annoying at times, but it’s nothing compared to how good company they are. Even though I’ll never stop feeling like an odd one out in their group, it’s still fun to hang out with them from time to time.

Finished with our snacks, the guys and I got to work. Sawako handed us a signed note, which stated that we were a helping hand for the Light Music Club, so that we wouldn’t get in trouble for walking to places we’re not supposed to. After getting some directions to the auditorium’s back door, we picked up some of the stuff, and were on our way. Though, after walking down the stairs to the first floor, we quickly came to regret picking up so much stuff at once. I guess it’s universal for boys to show off in front of girls. Arms trembling, we made our way through the wing towards the auditorium, finally getting to the back door. I presented Sawako’s note to the students responsible for stage equipment. Sure enough, they were surprised to see us, but didn’t ask any unnecessary questions. With the stuff off our hands, we took a second to catch our breath, and headed back to pick up more stuff, this time a bit less.

A couple more round-trips later we were finally done with the stuff. Dropping off the last pieces of Ritsu’s drum set, we headed off to find our companions. We walked slowly, panting slightly and massaging our tired muscles at the same time. A few bypassing students turned to stare at us. Can’t blame them.

“God damn, I’m gonna be sore tomorrow…” Tadaaki muttered.

Ichiro wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “You know, dude, it was nice helping you, but…”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll treat you guys for something later,” I said. “Actually, I think I’ll ask the girls for some reward next time I see them. This was ridiculous.”

Should I really complain, though? The gals have been doing this every year, and I bet they also have to carry the equipment back, too. Though, there’s more of them, and I’m also pretty sure they carry less stuff at once, unlike us. But maybe I’ll still try my luck with that reward. Who knows, maybe Tsumugi will have some snacks to give.

After wandering around a bit, we finally found Ui, Jun and Tamiko. Ui noticed our tiredness almost right away, so she suggested that we’d just sit down for now, which suited us just fine. Actually, she then offered to go and buy us some drinks. I was about to refuse, but she was already off to the drink stall. Eh, whatever, I’ll just pay her back later. I’m too tired to get up… Closing my eyes, I leaned backwards on the bench, pointing my face up towards the sky. Ah, the cool breeze feels good on my skin.

“Eiji-kun?” I heard Jun calling for me.

Without opening my eyes, I asked: “Yeah?”

“When you boys were gone, we happened to hear some other students talking, and… Well… You guys are kinda famous right now,” she explained, chuckling.

Ah, rumors going around? Those ain’t nothing new… At least they wouldn’t be if this was my school. But it wasn’t. Realizing that, I quickly straightened my posture with a flinch.

“Wait, what?”

The guys, too, heard what Jun said, and were as surprised as me.

Jun chuckled even more at our reactions. “Well, we just happened to pass by some students, and heard them talking about what you guys did earlier today. And when we headed to the other part of the school, we heard the same thing there. It’s like half of the school knows about it by now.”

Huh? Wait, maybe that’s why those students turned to stare at us earlier. Hm…

Tamiko frowned a bit. “Jun-chan, I said we shouldn’t tell them about it.”

“Why not? They’ll hear about it sooner or later, anyway,” Jun said, cocking her head.

“Because right now they’re here, at our school. And now that they know that there’s rumors going on about them, they’ll probably get nervous…” Tamiko sighed.

However, her worries were soon proven to be baseless, when Ichiro turned to face Tadaaki and I.

“You guys hear that? We’re famous!” he said excitedly.

Tadaaki snickered. “Yeah. Shit, all the other guys in Kasumimashita will envy us.”

Honestly speaking, even though I don’t like being the center of attention, something about this got me excited, too. Maybe because for the first time, the rumors weren’t malicious. No, they were exactly the opposite.

“Hey, you think some stalls will give us free stuff?” I asked the guys.

Ichiro glanced at the stalls. “Oh, shit, you think we should try our luck?”

Our excited blathering was cut off when Tamiko suddenly jumped on her feet, clenching her fists.

“Oh, for crying out loud, you guys are idiots!” she snapped.

“H-Hey, now, little Tamiko, we were just kidding…” Tadaaki tried to soothe her.

“No, you be quiet!” she told him off. “You’re nothing but a bunch of shameless idiots!”

Though Tadaaki is probably the most level-headed guy I know, even he can’t help but to yield when faced by Tamiko’s wrath. Though my sister is a sweet gal, she can also be terrifying when angry.

“…Eh?” I heard a confused mutter.

Ah, and here’s Ui, returning with the drinks. She was looking at angry Tamiko, confused. Hopefully she’ll be able to calm her down, because right now I don’t have the energy for it.

We spent the next hour hanging around the festival area as usual. Eating, playing, having fun, whatever came to mind. Though, I couldn’t help but steal a glance at the other students from time to time, and usually found them looking back at us. At one point, a couple of students actually approached us, asking if we were the ones who stopped the harassment earlier. With a bit of pride, the guys and I nodded. But the pride soon vanished when one of them connected the guys’ uniforms to the group of students lounging along their marathon route. Giving some half-assed answers sheepishly, we quickly headed off, our companions giggling at our reactions. It made us think if the rumors were such a good thing after all.

Before we even realized it, it was time for the Light Music Club’s concert. So, without wasting any time, we headed to the auditorium, so we’d actually get some seats, unlike last year. But right as we stepped through the doors to the auditorium’s entrance hall, we were met by a surprise. There were two students handing t-shirts to everyone coming to see the concert.

“Here you are.”

“Hm?” I muttered, taking a better look at the shirt. “Hold on, isn’t this…”

The girl didn’t pay much mind to my reaction. “Please wear them during the concert, if you don’t mind.”

I took the shirt, examining it, and finally unfolding it. Yeah, I was right. This is exactly the same shirt as the one Yui showed me earlier. Damn, so this is what Sawako was doing last night, when she talked about costumes. There’s a teacher I’d want in my school. Now, how the hell will this work with my hoodie…? Eh, I’ll just put it under it, it’d look stupid on top of it. The guys took their uniforms’ coats off, and slipped the shirts on. The gals followed their example, and we stepped into the auditorium itself.

“You stick out with your red hoodie, you know,” Jun noted to me.

I shrugged. “Can’t help it, I like this hoodie.”

We found suitable seats from the middle, and sat down, waiting for the show to start. As the minutes passed, more and more audience flowed into the auditorium. After a while, I looked behind me, only to notice that the whole place was full, and all the other people arriving late had to stand. Man, their music sure is good, but I can’t say I was expecting this. Oh, and almost all of them were wearing those t-shirts.

A short while later the lights turned off, and the red curtain rose slowly. With that, the audience began clapping. And the first thing we saw on the stage was Yui, sitting on the stage, her back turned towards the audience. Almost as if she had tripped or something, that wouldn’t surprise me. She slowly got back on her feet, but managed to drop her guitar in the process. When she turned to face the audience, she finally noticed everyone wearing the same shirt as her and the other club members. Overwhelmed by this, she began sniveling, all the while introducing the band. Finally snorting up her snot, she presented their first song: Rice as a Side Dish. Hey, this is the one she wrote the lyrics to a couple of weeks ago! I wonder how it’ll sound.

Ritsu set the beat, and the song began blasting. Yui and Azusa were shredding away on their guitars, while Tsumugi was working magic on her keyboard. It was nothing like I expected it to be. No, it was something better. It sounded great, and Yui’s lyrics fit it surprisingly well. Yup, no more sitting down for us. Like most of the audience, we too stood up, clapping along the beat. After minutes of rocking, the song was over.

“Holy shit, that was actually awesome!” I could hear Ichiro yelling through the applause.

“Yeah, that shit slapped!” Tadaaki nodded, clapping all the way.

Yui used the short break to talk about yesterday’s play. Encouraged by the audience, Mio and Ritsu decided to read a couple of lines from their roles, receiving applause. And Yui, well, was excited to tell about her role as a tree. And then it was the time for the next song. Or, at least it would’ve been, but Yui forgot what it was, and she also forgot her cheat note. After getting a laugh out of the audience, she finally recalled it: Fuwa Fuwa Time. That’s the song that sparked my love for this band. It’s the song I heard when I first visited the Sakuragaoka festival two years ago. Back then, I only knew Ui, Yui and Jun. I didn’t even recognize Mio and Ritsu, and Azusa wasn’t going to their school yet. Tadaaki had only days before learnt about Ui. But now, it all feels like a faraway memory. A lot has changed since then… Though this song hasn’t. And I’m fucking glad, because I love it!

After the song and some well-deserved applause, Yui decided to introduce the club members to the audience, starting with Sawako, who didn’t seem to appreciate Yui’s way of calling her ‘Sawa-chan-sensei’. Next up was Mio, who was sheepish at first, but then grabbed the mic determinedly, thanking the audience. And then it was Nodoka’s turn, who unintentionally got the spotlight, and quickly hid back backstage. Next up was Tsumugi, then Azusa, and Yui also remembered to mention their turtle, Ton-chan. And then Ritsu, who gave a surprisingly sheepish greeting. Huh, guess he also gets nervous sometimes. They were ready to move on to the next song, when Yui remembered that she was yet to be introduced. All of the band members took turns introducing her. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: That’s a tight bunch of friends right there.

“Sis!” Ui suddenly yelled out.

Yui, having heard her sister’s call, yelled back: “Ui!”

And there’s the sweetest pair of sisters I’ve ever seen, always there to brighten my day.

“…Oh, Eiji-kun!”

…Fuck.

I could feel hundreds of gazes targeting me as Yui kept yelling on the microphone: “Eiji-kun! Thank you again for helping us out with the equipment, and—!”

“Just get on with the next song, for god’s sake!” I yelled back, cutting her off.

My yell caused some laughter and even a few claps in the audience. I sat back down, sinking deep into the bench. Yui announced that the next song would be their last, as their time was running out. She thanked everyone, and announced the song’s name: U&I.

Hm, U&I? An English name, basically meaning you and I. But, they’re also how to spell a certain someone’s name in English. A certain someone, who’s currently standing next to me. The song began playing. Though it still rocked, it was a tad calmer than the previous ones. And as I listened to the lyrics, it quickly became clear that the song was about what I thought it was. It was obviously written by Yui. It was her message to Ui. All the gratitude, all the things she wanted to say to her, it was all packed in that one song. And Ui seemed to realize it too, as she was clapping along the beat, that sweet smile on her face, and tears forming in the corners of her eyes.

And then, just like that, the concert was over. Only at that moment, I realized it would be the senior members’ last. With the rest of the audience, we made our way out of the auditorium. Glancing up to the sky, I noticed it slowly turning orange. It was already afternoon. I’ve been here pretty much all day, having fun the whole time. I recalled still wearing the shirt, so I took it off, handing it to Tamiko.

“Here, can you take this home for me?”

“Hm, why?” she asked, though still taking the shirt.

I got the hoodie back on my shoulders. “You know me. Even though it’s a cool shirt, I don’t really care for printed clothing.”

“You and your cares…” Tamiko muttered.

The guys, too, had taken their shirts off. Though they don’t share my opinion about printed clothing, they probably thought that a t-shirt on top of a school uniform’s shirt wasn’t very good looking. Not having any bags to carry them in, they handed them over to Tamiko, too.

“Hey, care to take ours, too? We’ll come pick them up later,” Tadaaki said.

Reluctantly, Tamiko took the shirts, mumbling with a frown: “Honestly, you guys…”

“I’m going to take these to my bag, wait for me here,” Tamiko said to the girls, heading towards the school building.

We watched as she walked away, and Tadaaki stretched his arms. “Well, that was one hell of a concert.”

Ichiro nodded. “Yeah, it was sick.”

“I know, right?” I said, grinning. “Totally worth skipping school.”

Ui wasn’t amused by it. “Eiji-kun, you shouldn’t encourage others to skip school.”

“Huh? Wait, I wasn’t encouraging anyone,” I hastily defended myself.

But Ui wasn’t done just yet: “Besides, you really should take studying more seriously, now especially. Even though you’re not planning on going to college, you still need to graduate.”

“Hey, now, things aren’t actually that bad…” I muttered, scratching the back of my head.

Jun grinned, noting: “Not from what we’ve heard from Tamiko.”

Tadaaki was listening to our conversation with an amused smile, until he snapped his fingers to get our attention. “Hey, I’m gonna go for a breather. I’ll be right back.”

Ui and Jun were puzzled about it, but I knew very well what he meant by that.

“Oh, uh, sure. We’ll be here,” I said.

However, to my surprise, Ichiro said: “Hold on, I’m gonna come with you.”

“You are?” Tadaaki asked, as surprised as I was.

He nodded. “Yeah. I got something to ask you, anyways.”

Thinking about it, Tadaaki shrugged. “…Whatever, fine.” And then they both headed off through the main gates.

Yeah, I know Tadaaki’s breathers. He’s actually just going for a smoke, since he’s been a smoker since the first year of junior high. Ichiro, however, surprised me a bit. He had reduced his smoking after I had quit it, and I thought he had also quit by this time, too. Or, maybe he actually has something to ask from Tadaaki? Something that can’t be asked publicly?

“Ah, how about we get something to drink while we wait?” Ui suggested.

I nodded. “Sure, but this time it’s my treat.”

“Eiji-kun, you don’t need to repay gifts and treats,” Ui scolded me jokingly.

“Well, just pretend that I’m not repaying anything,” I said.

We got ourselves some lemonade, and sat down on the bench to drink it. Tamiko soon joined us, and we continued drinking our sweet drinks and waiting for the guys to return.

“So, any plans for the rest of the day?” I asked Ui.

She rested her finger on her lip, thinking. “…Well, we’re needed back at the stall soon, we also got the late afternoon shift. Though, it’s mostly empty at that time, so you boys could come there, and we’d keep you company. After that, it’d be fun to go and congratulate sis and the others for the amazing performance.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I nodded, sipping my drink.

Minutes passed as we kept talking about whatever came to mind. We were finished with the drinks, and now the only thing keeping us on these benches was waiting for the guys to return.

Jun kicked the ground impatiently, moaning: “Ugh, what’s taking those two so long?”

“Must be a pretty heavy breather,” Ui noted, smiling slightly.

Pretty heavy breather… More like a pretty heavy cigarette. But anyway, they sure seem to take their time. Tadaaki usually finishes his cigs way sooner than this…

No…

That’s not what I…? No, no… But… It is…

Hesitatingly, I stood up, my gaze on the street right across from us, the vision only partly blocked by a fence and some stalls.

“Eiji-kun…?” Ui muttered confusedly.

I walked towards the main gate. I picked up the pace to catch those guys by the time I got to the gate. I hid my shaking hands in my pockets, my feet felt weak, my heart was pounding heavier with every beat. I finally got to the gate, facing the guys. One of them finally noticed me, and came to a stop. The rest of the group did the same.

“Sugimoto?”

I eyed the guy from head to toe. His clothes were dirty. His knuckles were bruised. There was blood dripping from his nose, which he was currently cleaning with a napkin. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. But I wasn’t so sure if he was as furious as I was.

“…Tsukuda,” I muttered.

We had a staredown. During that, had the time to count his companions. There were five of them, all looking to be in the same condition as Tsukuda. I actually recognized three of them, they were the ones causing trouble here earlier.

As if getting tired of all this staring, Tsukuda spoke: “So, you took it upon yourself to scare these boys earlier today, huh?”

“They were harassing a girl,” I said, trying my best to keep my expression neutral.

“And that’s why you beat one of them up?” he asked.

Almost losing my cool, I said: “I didn’t beat anyone up. Trust me, if I did, he wouldn’t have been able to come and cry about it to you.”

With a grin, he snorted. “Yeah, I know, I was just fucking with you. The oh-so-great psychopath of Yukinokawa must’ve died years ago, seeing as he wouldn’t do anything, even when he was punched right to the face.”

He then sighed, and kept cleaning his nose. “…Honestly, it was disappointing to hear. I bet it would’ve been cool to fight you.”

“Cool…? Cool? You see fighting as cool?” I asked him.

“Huh? Well, yeah,” he shrugged. “Why? Don’t you? Or, well, I guess you don’t, at least not anymore…”

“…though I wanted to prove otherwise.”

I was seriously starting to lose my cool. “…What the fuck did you mean by that?”

“Oh, right. I was about to come and see what’s up, and, well… I hoped to find you in that side alley over there. But you were nowhere to be found,” he muttered, shoving the piece of paper into his nostril to suck up the blood.

Side alley…? Oh.

Oh no.

One of his companions looked at me, and then at Tsukuda. “Hey, he’s here now. Why don’t we just—?”

However, his talking was cut short when Tsukuda struck his elbow to his face.

“Are you out of your fucking mind!?” he snapped at him. “In a public place like this!? Do I really need to crack that skull open to see if you have any pieces of brain left, you fucking moron!?”

…Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tsukuda outright angry. He has always just… kinda been chuckling. More surprising was how fast he was able to calm down.

“…And besides, I don’t really care about it anymore. If he wants to be soft, then he’ll be soft. If any of you wanna fuck him up, sure, go ahead, but at least let me get out of here first.”

And then, just like that, he snapped again: “Though I doubt even the lot of you would be able to do it, since he immobilized this fucking useless brat without punching him even once!”

He grabbed one of the guys by the collar. That was the guy I pinned to the ground. Wait, shit, are those others really gonna…?

After staring at each other for a few seconds more, it became apparent that the others didn’t actually care about beating me up. I’m not sure if Tsukuda had managed to demoralize them, or because we were in a public area with lots of witnesses. Without exchanging any more words, the guys continued on along the street. I also got on the street, and made a run in the opposite direction. The direction they came from. And also…

the direction Tadaaki and Ichiro headed off to earlier.

Shit, shit, shit, shit!

After a run that felt like eternity, I finally found the side alley. It was hard to miss, since there were a few people gathered around its entrance. My heart beating like crazy, my legs trembling, my vision blurring around the edges, I finally got there, pushing my way through the people.

On the ground lied Ichiro. He was all bruised up, there was blood dripping from his nose. He was moaning and grunting. It didn’t take much to realize that he was in serious pain.

Crouched down next to him was Tadaaki, also looking pretty beaten up, but less so than Ichiro. Tadaaki was holding a phone to his ear. He was calling emergency services. Something really, really bad had happened to Ichiro.

My legs giving up, I crashed down on my knees.

“Ichiro! Ichiro!” I cried his name.

Ears ringing, the thousands of thoughts and emotions clouding my mind, I sat there in shock. At some point, Tadaaki was done with talking with the emergency services, and directed his attention at Ichiro.

“Hold on, man, an ambulance is coming! You’ll be fine! You’ll be just fucking fine, if you just hold on!” he yelled.

“Fuck, fuck… f-fuck…” Ichiro growled between his teeth.

I noticed him carefully feeling his upper abdomen. Something was wrong there. Something was broken, maybe. And… And it’s all because of…

In the midst of everything, I could hear some running steps from behind me. Multiple people approached the scene. However, right now I didn’t care enough to turn and look at them. I just stayed there, sitting on the ground, looking at my suffering friend, while I couldn’t do anything to help him.

“…Eiji-kun?”

Even though I recognized the voice, it still took me many seconds to turn to face it. I was met with Ui’s worried face, which soon turned into a shocked one as she slowly realized what had happened.

…A curse.

Chapter Text

At some point, I just woke up from my thoughts. I found myself standing next to a side alley, leaning against the wall behind me. I held my hands in my hoodie’s pockets, and didn’t seem to find a comfortable resting position for them. The afternoon sun, painting the street with its orange hue, was simply too bright, too blinding, so I closed my eyes, hanging my head low. The sound of the town around us was overwhelming, soon turning into an ear-piercing, high-pitched ringing. It felt like my legs would give up any moment. I felt nauseated, the taste of gastric acid constantly lingering in the back of my mouth. My head was pounding, the countless thoughts and emotions racing in my mind. Confusion, regret, fear… But mostly fury.

And then, a hand was carefully placed on my shoulder.

“Eiji-kun…”

Almost instantly, my strength was back. The ringing was gone from my ears. Once again, I opened my eyes, and turned to look at my side. I was met with Ui’s worried face. Trying my best to get a grip, I straightened myself up, taking a deep breath. However, no matter how hard I tried to stay strong, I still ended up hanging my head low once again.

Minute or two passed, when I heard a vehicle driving off. Raising my head a bit, I saw that it was the ambulance. In the back of that ambulance lies Ichiro, who was beaten up just moments ago. Taking a better look around me, I also spotted Tadaaki, who was watching as the ambulance drove off. Just seconds later its sirens started blasting, startling me, and probably many others in the vicinity. The ambulance disappeared around the corner, the sound of the sirens getting more and more distant. After standing there for a moment, Tadaaki finally turned around to face me. He had a few bandages on his bruised face, and he was holding a gel ice pack against his cheek. He also looked… tired, to say the least.

Tadaaki walked over to us, and sighed, explaining in a low voice: “A fractured rib and internal bleeding… They also suspect abdominal trauma.”

“Oh my gosh…” Ui gasped quietly, shocked.

“Yeah, well, nothing they can’t fix. He’ll be fine eventually, but still…” he muttered, his voice trailing off.

“…What a fucking mess.”

It was quiet as we just stood there, save for the occasional car driving by. Aside from Ui, Jun and Tamiko were also here a moment ago, as they had come with her. They all had given me chase after I had suddenly bolted off. I really wish they wouldn’t have done it, as they encountered the same horrible sight as I did: Tadaaki and Ichiro, beaten up and bruised, and the latter squirming on the ground in pain. When the ambulance arrived, the area needed to be cleared of any unnecessary bystanders. I told the girls to head off back to school, and that I’d meet up with them later. Ui was the only one who didn’t listen to me. She’s been by my side the whole time. But, now that the situation was over, I decided to try again.

“Ui-san,” I called out for her. “You can head back. I’ll catch up with you.”

“But, Eiji-kun…” she muttered.

“I’ll be fine. I just… I need to be alone with Tadaaki for a bit,” I said. “You’re gonna get marked as absent at this rate.”

Still looking reluctant, Ui glanced downwards, thinking, and then back at me. All the while, she had that worried expression on her face.

“…I’m just worried that… those hooligans will come back,” she explained, her own words scaring her a bit.

“They won’t,” I reassured her. “We’ll stay in public. Even if they came back, they wouldn’t dare to do anything with lots of potential witnesses about. Tadaaki and I will just talk for a few minutes, and then I’ll meet up with you back at Sakuragaoka. Okay?”

To soothe her, I placed my hand on her head, and crouched down a bit. Seconds passed as Ui and I were looking at each other. Her watery brown eyes were sparkling in the afternoon sun. I could sense the uneasiness in her. It was clear that she was unwilling to leave me here. And then, she finally nodded.

“…Okay, but… be careful.”

I gently tapped my fingers on her head a couple of times, before retracting my hand.

“Of course,” I said.

With that done, she took a few slow, reluctant steps backwards, before turning around, and walking back to the school. She’s obviously worried. Of course she’s fucking worried. Worried and scared. She should be, she has every damn right to feel that way. And here I am, brushing it off like it’s nothing. Honestly speaking? I wanted to head off with her. But there are lots of questions on my mind, and Tadaaki is the only one who can answer them. And, well, I don’t want anyone else to hear us talking.

Scratching my eyebrow, I turned to face Tadaaki. “…What the hell exactly happened?”

He opened his mouth, about to answer, but then closed it. He glanced at the side alley next to us, and after thinking for a second, jerked his head towards it. I understood what he meant. This wasn’t exactly an ideal place for talking. So, we headed to the shadowy side alley. It’s places like these where I spent most of my junior high years. After ten meters or so, Tadaaki turned around a corner. Behind it was an immediate dead end. Or, almost immediate, it was about a meter long, or a recess, so to say. It was a garbage collection point. A perfect hiding place, even in a relatively public place like this. No one walking on the street would see us here. Tadaaki looked at the gel ice pack in his hand, and threw it aside on the garbage pile. He squatted down, and I did the same.

“Hey, uh… You mind if I light up one?” he asked me.

I shook my head. “Nah. Go ahead.”

After I quit smoking a couple of years ago, Tadaaki hasn’t really felt comfortable smoking in my presence, and always avoids it when possible. I can respect that…

…but…

“…Actually, pass me one, too.”

“Huh?” Tadaaki twitched, surprised. “You fucking serious?”

His reaction was justified. I haven’t smoked a single cigarette since the first month of high school. But right now, I really need something to calm my nerves. Maybe it wasn’t the best option, maybe it was a completely wrong one, but it was the only thing I could come up with at the moment.

I nodded. “Just this once. Please.”

Tadaaki frowned as he thought about it, and sighed. He dug out a small pack of cigarettes from his uniform’s coat’s hidden pocket (he had bought that customization from a member of our school’s Sewing Club), and pulled out two cigarettes, handing the other one to me.

“Fine, but just this once,” he muttered, unamused. “You ever ask me again, and I’ll make you smoke it in one drag until you puke.”

“Right, got it,” I nodded, fiddling with the cigarette.

He then dug out a lighter. After lighting his cigarette, he handed the lighter over to me. I took it, and lit my own cigarette, puffing the first smokes out, taking another drag, and this time inhaling the smoke. Even though I was doing this throughout junior high, the two and a half years without smoking were enough to make me cough a bit. The feeling of smoke filling my lungs, and the slight lightheadedness due to the temporary lack of oxygen… It was kinda nostalgic. I handed the lighter back to Tadaaki, who was looking at me from the corner of his eye, seeming a tad disappointed. In me, or in himself? I couldn’t tell. I took another drag, and this time managed not to cough. Yeah, it tasted like shit as usual, and the awful taste lingered on my tongue for way too long, but… God, this hits the spot right now.

Without wasting any more time, Tadaaki began to explain: “So, it was Tsukuda and—”

“Tsukuda and his cronies, I know,” I cut him off. “I happened to spot them walking by the festival, which is how I knew to come here.”

“Right…” he muttered, and continued: “Ichiro and I were in the middle of talking. He was standing just on the opposite side, over there, so that’s probably how those fucks spotted us from the street and came over. Aside from Tsukuda, there were also those three cunts causing trouble earlier today, and two other punks.”

He paused to take a drag, and I used the moment to ask him a question: “Was it because of what happened earlier?”

Tilting his head back and blowing the smoke high up in the air, he nodded slightly. “Yeah. Those three had told him about what happened, and, well… Guess it was just an excuse for him to pick a fight. I mean, you know what kind of a guy he is?”

I recalled the conversation I had with Tsukuda earlier in the summer.

“…Yes. He has a perverted fixation with violence.”

“Exactly. Anyway, after some quarreling and throwing insults and threats around, it quickly became apparent that Tsukuda wasn’t interested in us. He wanted to fight you.”

“…Me?” I asked, confused.

He nodded. “Yeah, probably all that talk about ‘psychopath’ or whatever those other shitheads have been saying must’ve gotten in his head. I think he sees you as some challenge or some shit.”

He was about to take another drag, until he realized something, and turned to face me. “Wait, you said earlier that you spotted them walking by the festival?”

“Yeah. Actually, I confronted them. But Tsukuda just said something about ‘me being soft’ and headed off without much else. As if he suddenly lost interest in it right at that second,” I explained.

“Really? Huh, so he really does have a shitty attention span…” Tadaaki muttered. “Well, in any case, in the midst of our quarreling, one of the guys told Tsukuda that you were most likely still at the festival area, and suggested heading there.”

He then scratched his cheek.

“And that’s when the shit hit the fan. Ichiro suddenly bolted forward, charging at Tsukuda, and gave him a nice one-two straight to the face. All hell broke loose, and we were throwing fists the very next second. Six against two, but they weren’t playing by the rules, no. Four of the guys were targeting Ichiro, while only two were in my throat, almost as if they were trying to keep me from intervening.”

He paused to take a drag, and blew the smoke out. Wait, so Ichiro attacked them first, and only because they were planning on coming after me…?

“It was a fucking mess. Though he gave all of them a nice ass kicking, they still managed to overpower him, and it wasn’t long until Ichiro was laying on the ground, while those fucks continued by kicking him around the body with all their might. But… even though I was occupied with the two fucknuts trying to kill me, I still happened to see how Tsukuda stepped away the second Ichiro fell down. Don’t know why, but maybe it was because he wasn’t interested in us to begin with,” he said, and tilted his head. “Or maybe he just lost interest all of a sudden, just as you said before. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, he just stood there, watching, the seconds passing by, when suddenly he yelled something about ‘this being enough’. And as those guys just kept on kicking, he suddenly grabbed one of them by the collar, pushed him against the wall, and punched him in the face, yelling about how he’s in charge or some shit.”

Yeah, earlier I happened to notice Tsukuda’s tendency to snap all of a sudden, even taking it as far as beating up his buddies. I guess he controls them with fear, and doesn’t tolerate disobedience.

Tadaaki shook his head to himself. “Completely absurd. It took us all by surprise, all the fighting stopped as we all turned to look at the scene. However, I decided to use the chance to make a run for it, so I slipped past the two dudes in front of me, and ran over to Ichiro. I tackled the two other guys next to him, quickly helped him on his feet, and made our way back to the street. And we actually made it there before they could give us chase. It was enough for Tsukuda and the others to lose interest, and make their leave through the opposite end of the side alley. But, Ichiro’s feet suddenly gave up, and he just slumped on the ground, moaning in pain. It took me way too long to realize that something was wrong. It wasn’t until a pedestrian happened to notice us, and told to call an ambulance, so that’s what I did.”

He turned to look at me. “After a minute or two, you arrived. That’s about it.”

I just smoked my cigarette, thinking. I had a hard time taking it all in.

“…So, Ichiro attacked them when they mentioned coming for me?” I asked.

Tadaaki didn’t say anything. After some seconds, he nodded slightly.

I frowned. “Why the hell didn’t you just let them do it?”

“Huh?” he muttered. “There were six of them. Fucking six. You think you could’ve taken them all on?”

“Well, no, but…” I murmured. “Then, why didn’t you just retreat back to Sakuragaoka? Then it would’ve been three against six.”

Tadaaki tapped his cigarette’s filter to shake off the ashes. “Sure, I bet the three of us could’ve given them a nice beating, but you really think it would’ve been a good idea to fight in the middle of a festival?”

He’s got a point. That’s exactly what I tried to prevent earlier today. For many years, I was known as nothing but a violent delinquent, and I wouldn’t want to have that same reputation in Sakuragaoka, even though it would’ve been self-defense.

“…I guess not,” I muttered, taking another drag.

“But… They were there for me, so—”

“Oh, no! Don’t you go blaming yourself!” Tadaaki cut me off, unamused.

I threw my hand to the side. “Then who the hell should I blame? Tsukuda was obviously interested in finding me, and the only reason he heard about me being in the neighborhood was those three fuckwits, and they wouldn’t have gone off to tell him about it if I hadn’t stepped in to stop their shit, and—"

“Do you regret it?” Tadaaki suddenly asked. “Do you regret saving that girl from them?”

Confused, I shook my head. “Well, no, but—”

“Well then, shut the hell up! You didn’t see this coming, no one did, it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” he said, clicking his tongue “Or what? Next you’re gonna say that if you had never met that Hirasawa gal, you would’ve never been at the festival to stop the harassment?”

I was about to retort with something, but I didn’t, as I thought about it. Just as he said, no one could’ve seen this coming, it was just an unfortunate series of events leading up to this point. It’s no one’s fault. And, well, if Tadaaki was actually blaming me, he would’ve already punched me.

“…Fine, whatever,” I said, returning to my cigarette.

Even though I brushed off the subject, the feeling of guilt still lingered on my mind, but I decided to just keep quiet about it.

After a couple of puffs, I asked: “So, what now?”

“What do you mean ‘what now’?” he asked back.

“What are we gonna do?” I clarified.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Watch our backs, I guess.”

“You guess?” I muttered, frowning.

“Well what the hell you want to do? Go on some revenge journey or some shit?” he asked, chuckling sarcastically.

I sighed out of frustration. “Maybe, I don’t know. I just won’t fucking leave it like this. Some mentally deranged fuck comes here and beats up our friend, and we should just shrug it off? Hell no.”

I was really getting annoyed. All the feelings I suppressed when Ui was still present were now coming back, and fury was the dominant one.

Tadaaki pinched his eyes closed, trying to keep his cool. He took a quick drag, blowing the smoke out through his nose.

“It’s a gang,” he suddenly said.

“…What?” I asked.

“A gang. Street gang. Or, honestly, just a group of wannabe punks, but still, there’s a lot of them. At least a dozen. Those fucks were part of it, Tsukuda included,” he explained.

He took a look at me, and continued: “Earlier today, when I told you that I’ve been keeping a track of Tsukuda, I was about to tell you about it, but I… Guess I didn’t want to worry you guys too much. Anyway, that’s why he hasn’t been at school. He’s been playing gangsters with his sad group of morons. And, well, they’ve made it into the headlines. Even Ichiro’s dad mentioned about a ‘juvenile gang’, and he’s a big shot at the police station, so that really tells something.”

…Now that you mention it, my dad, too, told me he had heard about the juvenile gang on the news. I could’ve never imagined it was Tsukuda’s group.

“Shoplifting, vandalism, causing ruckus with their bikes, some assaults here and there… Just the usual,” he listed. “To be honest, we could beat the shit out of any of them. But the problem is, they’re a gang. And what are gangs for?”

“For pussies who can’t do on their own,” I answered his question right away.

It was a life philosophy the guys and I lived by. Sure, you can always help a friend in need, but if you need a big group constantly around you to make the grade, you’re nothing but a bitch.

Tadaaki nodded. “Meaning, if we beat up Tsukuda, it won’t be long before we get jumped by those other shitheads.”

“Yeah, it’d be a mess…” I muttered, looking at my smoldering cigarette. “But regardless…”

My voice drifted off as I looked at unamused Tadaaki. He didn’t seem eager to continue this discussion, so I decided to drop it. The following moment was spent in silence, as we just sat there, smoking in peace. Lots of thoughts were racing in my mind, and I bet Tadaaki, too, was occupied with thinking. Taking one last drag from his cigarette, he stumped his cigarette on the ground, blowing the smoke out, and clearing his throat.

“…I’ll see what I can find out,” he said.

I raised my eyebrow. “Hm, you got an idea?”

“Maybe. We’ll see,” he muttered, carefully feeling his bruised knuckles. “Let’s just wait until Ichiro gets better.”

He turned to look at me, and noticed that I still had a bit of my cigarette left. I was about to stump it, when he stopped me.

“Nah, just finish it. Then, I think I’ll head home, and you’ll go back to that Hirasawa gal of yours.”

“Piss off,” I muttered, taking a drag.

But honestly, I didn’t want to worry Ui too much, so maybe it’s for the best to head there as soon as possible. But, how will I explain the smell? I guess I can blame Tadaaki. I was about to take another puff, when I recalled something.

“Oh, by the way, when you guys headed off, Ichiro said that he needed to ask you something?”

Tadaaki tilted his head backwards. “Yup, he did. I thought it was just an excuse, but it was the truth. He didn’t even ask for a cigarette. The only thing he asked was about you and that—"

The sound of approaching footsteps made us jolt in surprise, cutting Tadaaki off. The pace sounded swift, someone was approaching in a hurry. Seconds later, that someone came to our view. It was Ui. She peeked around the corner, finding us.

“Oh, there you are. Thank goodness, I was starting to worry… that…” she said, but her voice quickly died down as she got a better look at us.

Fuck, shit! I was about to stump the cigarette I was holding, until I realized I wasn’t holding it anymore. I turned to look at Tadaaki, and… found him taking a drag out of a cigarette. The one I was holding just seconds ago. Wait, did he snag it from me?

Blowing the smoke out through his nose, he stumped the cig on the ground, and grinned. “Yo. Sorry, an ugly habit of mine. We needed to move out of the view.”

“Oh, um…” Ui muttered confusedly, not sure what to say.

Tadaaki stood up, stretching his legs with a groan. “Yeah, yeah. A filthy habit, and I’m underage, I know. Don’t tell on me, alright?”

I, too, decided to stand up, a bit speechless. God damn, Tadaaki saved my ass. Speaking of him, he didn’t seem to care about the confused atmosphere.

“Didn’t care to wait, huh?” he asked Ui.

Recovering from the confusion, Ui said: “Oh, ah, yes. I, uh, asked to be excused, and got permission to leave early.”

“Huh, is that so?” Tadaaki said, giving me a quick look, and smirking a bit. “Well, I’m sure this guy appreciates it.”

Screw you, man… Giving him a nasty glance, I turned to face Ui.

“You didn’t really need to, I was gonna meet up with you anyway.”

“I just thought that, well, you might have a lot on your mind, and the festival wouldn’t exactly be the best place to be at right now. And, I was kinda worried about leaving you alone, even if you were with Tadaaki-san,” Ui explained.

Huh, she really does care a lot, doesn’t she?

Tadaaki clicked his tongue, turning to look elsewhere. “Hm, so my emotional support is not enough?”

“O-Oh, no, I-I didn’t mean it like that!” Ui said hastily, waving her hands.

Seriously, screw you, man!

It was followed by Tadaaki’s chuckle. “Just kidding. But seriously, thanks for taking care of my best friend. I appreciate it.”

A bit surprised at first, Ui soon smiled warmly. “Sure, you’re very welcome.”

Tadaaki answered the smile, and then took a look at the trash pile next to him. “…Should we move?”

“Oh, right. Let’s do that,” I nodded.

We left the side alley, returning back to the street. As we got there, my eyes were inadvertently drawn to the small puddle of blood right in front of the side alley. That’s where Ichiro lied just moments ago. And right now, he’s probably already at the hospital. A broken rib, internal bleeding, maybe some abdominal trauma… That must hurt like a bitch. Those assholes really kicked him like they were going to kill him, huh… I guess Tadaaki connected my gloomy face to the blood puddle, which is probably why he stepped in front of it, blocking my view.

“Alright, then. I guess Eiji and I are done talking,” he said, slipping his hands into his coat’s pockets. “Better for me to head home and just lie down, these bruises are starting to sting.”

“You gonna be at school tomorrow?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “Maybe, I don’t know. If I feel like it. Anyways, apart from what just happened, this day was actually a lot of fun. We should do this more often. Well, see ya.”

He then turned on his heels, and with a wave of goodbye, began heading home. There goes my very good friend. Yeah, he knows how to get under my skin, and enjoys teasing me once in a while, but it’s nothing compared to how much he has helped me throughout my life… Wait, I didn’t get to hear what it was that Ichiro asked him. It was something about me, if I heard correctly. Hm, maybe some other time. Ui and I looked at his direction for a few seconds, until we turned to face each other.

“So, uh, what are we gonna do?” I asked her.

She had gone through the trouble of getting herself excused from school early, so clearly she must have something on her mind.

Gripping her school bag with both of her hands, she said: “Well, um, Tamiko-chan told me that you like going for walks.”

“Walks?” I asked, cocking my head a bit.

She nodded. “Yes. She told me that whenever you’re preoccupied, or feeling down, you usually go out for long walks. So, I thought you might want to do that. Because, well… I’m sure you’d like it in this situation.”

Tamiko said that, huh…? Well, she’s not wrong, I’ll tell you that. Though, lately I haven’t really gone out for walks. The kinds without any destination, I mean. Because for the last two and a half years, I’ve had a place to go to. A place where I could relax, where I could forget about all the shit on my mind. A place where I’m always greeted with a warm and sweet smile. But, I guess a simple walk would be suitable just about now.

“Yeah, sure. Sounds good,” I said, smiling a bit.

Ui answered my smile, and without further ado, we slowly began walking side by side along the street. I decided to head towards the river, and then to the bridge from there. Sure, it may not be the longest walk, but I didn’t want to waste too much of Ui’s time. Also, a lot had happened today, so I felt a bit tired. Minutes passed as we strolled together. Bit by bit, the afternoon was turning into evening, the shadows getting longer. We had been walking in silence, at least until now.

“So, uh…” Ui spoke, probably to spark some conversation. “Tadaaki-san’s—”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, cutting her off. “He’s been doing that ever since junior high. But, I know that he has his reasons, so I won’t judge him for it. Besides, he doesn’t usually do it in my presence, but this time was an acceptable exception.”

Ui seemed to understand. “Oh?”

I glanced at her, and chuckled embarrassedly. “…Guess I reek of cigarette smoke now, huh?”

“Well, now that you mention it, you kinda do…” she admitted, smiling a bit.

It wasn’t long until we got to the river, and continued walking alongside it, towards the bridge. The water flowed gently. Despite the fact that there were lots of people spending their afternoon on the riverbank, it was peaceful.

“So, guess we gotta congratulate Yui-san and the others some other time,” I noted.

“Ah, yes, but it’s not such a big problem,” Ui said.

I glanced at the river. “Well, I kinda wanted to do it today. Their concert was amazing.”

Ui nodded. “Yes, it really was.”

“…And also their last,” I muttered.

She seemed to realize it, too. “Oh, that’s right… They’re going to graduate next year, save for Azusa-chan.”

I sighed. “Must be hard for her… Maybe I’d better stop teasing her for a while.”

“She’d appreciate it if you didn’t tease her at all,” Ui noted, giggling a bit.

“Hey, I ain’t a miracle worker,” I quipped, snickering.

And so, we kept on walking, talking about whatever came to mind. I’m not sure which one of us slowed down the pace, but at one point I just noticed how slowly we were walking, side by side, talking, laughing, and just enjoying the moment. Actually, this was exactly what I needed right now. I had completely forgotten about all the heavy thoughts I had just moments ago. I could actually relax. And, it was all thanks to her. Thanks to Ui. I liked being with her. I liked talking with her. I liked seeing her smile. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is… I like her.

A couple days passed by. It was afternoon. Just as we had planned, I was standing at the edge of our neighborhood, next to the train tracks, waiting for Tadaaki. It didn’t take too long for him to arrive, and without further ado, we began heading towards the shopping district. Though he didn’t need the bandages anymore, Tadaaki’s bruises were still clearly visible. It looked kinda ridiculous, since the rest of his attire was neat and trim, just as usual. I don’t know what’s up with Tadaaki and collared shirts, but he has a lot of them. Long sleeves, short sleeves, warm and thin ones, striped, checkered and plain ones… A complete opposite of me and my red hoodie. Seriously, no one would think of him as a delinquent if it wasn’t for that obviously dyed hair.

After a bit of walking and some casual chit-chatting, we arrived at the shopping district. And there, standing at the corner of a convenience store, stood Ui. As we walked to her, I called her name to get her attention. When she finally noticed our presence, I waved for a greeting, and she answered the gesture. And now that we got to her, we noticed something: She was carrying a bouquet of yellow flowers.

“Ah, flowers and all, huh?” Tadaaki asked.

Ui nodded. “Yes. I thought it’d be only natural.”

I nodded, and couldn’t help but smile. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

“Yeah, I think so, too,” Tadaaki agreed, and pointed at one of the streets. “Just a few blocks this way. Come on, let’s get moving.”

And so we headed off, making our way through the shopping district. Our destination was the hospital.

We were on our way to visit Ichiro.

Yesterday, he messaged us, saying he was feeling good enough to accept visitors. I had mentioned our plan to go and visit him to Ui, and she wanted to come, too. After thinking about it, it wasn’t such a bad idea, honestly. There’s something about Ui’s presence that makes you feel at ease. And besides, I bet Ichiro will appreciate the fact that Tadaaki and I aren’t the only ones worried about him. For way too long, I tried to keep my two groups of friends separated from each other. It was about time for it to change. I mean, sure, I’m not gonna invite Ui to drink beer with me and the guys, but whenever there’s anything else going on, it’d be fun to have all of my friends there.

Roughly five minutes later we arrived at the hospital. It was a local hospital, and fairly small compared to our town’s main hospital, but it still did its job. Through the doors, and we were at the reception area. Squeaky floor, rows of benches, walls painted in the ugliest shade of green, the faint but unpleasant smell of disinfectant cleaner… Yup, this was a hospital, alright. We stopped by the reception desk to ask for directions to Ichiro’s room. Second floor, section C, end of the hallway, the second last door on the right. So that’s where we headed. When we got there, making sure it was the right door, we just stood there in front of it, quietly staring at it. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe we were just nervous, even though there was hardly any reason for it. Gathering up some courage, I finally knocked on the door. No answer. Waiting a few seconds, I grasped the handle, and slowly opened the door.

“Uh, hello?” I said in a low voice.

Taking a peek inside, I was met with a dimly lit room. The lights were off, the room’s window acting as the only light source. The blinds were partly closed, reducing the illumination it provided. And there, just next to the window, was a hospital bed. And on the bed lied Ichiro. Or sat, to be precise. Since it was a hospital bed, the mattress could be controlled electronically, and it was currently set to a sitting position. Ichiro was dressed in patient clothing, a blanket covering the lower half of his body. His face was covered with recovering bruises, just like Tadaaki’s. And, well, he looked tired. He was just sitting there, quiet, looking out of the window. And then, he slowly turned to face the door.

“Yo,” he said in a low, hoarse voice.

Opening the door completely, I stepped further into the room, Tadaaki and Ui following right behind me. Ichiro looked at his guests, his eyebrows raising ever so slightly as he noticed Ui. However, he didn’t say anything. I mean, even though he’s our friend, Tadaaki and I couldn’t come up with anything to say. The atmosphere in the room felt blue and heavy. Ui, however, was the first one to step forward.

“Um, I brought these,” she said, showing him the bouquet in her hands.

“…Oh, uh, thanks,” Ichiro muttered. “There should be a vase under the sink or something.”

Quickly scoping out the room, I found a counter with a sink, so I headed over there, checking the cabinet under the sink, and finding the said vase. As I was filling it with water, Tadaaki took it upon himself to move the chairs next to the bed, though there were only two of them. He then stepped to the side, as if indicating that he’ll stand. I brought the vase over to the table next to the bed, and Ui set the bouquet in it. We then took a seat on the chairs. Again, Ui was the first one to talk.

“I hope you’re feeling better, Ichiro-san,” she said to him.

“Yeah. Better than before, that’s for sure…” he muttered, and turned his gaze at the flowers.

Ui seemed to notice this. “My mother once told me that yellow flowers carry the message of happiness and friendship, so that’s why I chose them.”

Ichiro snorted slightly. “Huh… Yellow’s actually my favorite color.”

“Ah, really? What a happy coincidence, then,” Ui said, smiling warmly.

Something about their conversation made me smile a bit, too. Ui really can brighten up the mood, even in a dimly lit room like this.

I leaned forward a bit. “How you holding up?”

“Tired,” he answered.

I chuckled. “I can see that.”

Tadaaki, who was standing next to us with his arms crossed, asked: “So, how’s the situation, exactly?”

“A broken rib. There was also some internal bleeding, but they got it patched up,” Ichiro explained, hovering his hand over his side. “They also feared that one of my organs was damaged or something, but it was just some temporary problem, it fixed itself.”

Phew, so it wasn’t as bad as the ambulance staff suspected. Regardless, it still must suck.

“How long are you gonna be here?” I asked.

“Actually, not that long. I’m gonna head home tomorrow. A few days of lying down and taking some meds, and I’m good enough to go back to school, though I’ll have to skip P.E. for at least a couple of weeks,” he explained.

“Ah, great to hear it’s not anything too serious,” Ui said.

“Your parents must be worried.”

I could feel the unsettling atmosphere filling the room. Tadaaki and I turned to look at each other, our smiles gone. Ui, meanwhile, was just sitting there, confused about our reactions. Yeah, guess I never told Ui about Ichiro’s home life. And, well, I’m not sure if I should tell her, even now. It’s Ichiro’s personal business.

After a few, silent seconds, Ichiro nodded slightly. “…Yeah, they were.”

A bit surprised, Tadaaki and I turned to look at him. Ichiro noticed our reactions, and after thinking for a bit, he decided to tell us about it.

“…Me in the ambulance, being brought here… It’s all hazy, I can’t seem to remember almost anything about it. From what I heard, I was asleep for a whole day. It was yesterday when I woke up. And…”

Ichiro paused, turned to look out of the window, and continued.

“The first thing I saw was my dad. He was sitting on a chair, next to the bed. He was… hanging his head low. He was asleep. But, still, he was holding his hand on top of mine. I… I wasn’t sure what to do, what to say, when he just woke up. And when he saw me, I… I swear I could see him crying. Like he was actually glad to see me alive. He was just thanking the god over and over again, all the while holding my hand…”

He then turned his eyes back to us.

“It was very surprising, to say the least.”

I just sat there, a bit confused. I bet Tadaaki felt the same, too. However, neither of us were as confused as Ui. She had no idea why Ichiro would be surprised about something like that. However, she must’ve gotten at least the gist of it, which is probably why she didn’t ask about it.

“…Well, no father would like to see their son die,” Tadaaki noted, shrugging.

“Yeah… Yeah, I guess you’re right, but it’s just…” Ichiro muttered, turning to look at his hand. “I didn’t know that he cared that much.”

Once again, it was quiet for a while. No one cared to comment on the subject, or maybe no one dared to. Maybe we should change the subject. Actually, I had something on my mind, but I’m not sure if I should say it with Ui present… Ah, whatever.

“I heard that you, uh, defended me in that… conflict,” I said, choosing my words carefully due to the gal sitting next to me.

Puzzled for a bit, Ichiro soon understood what I meant. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t want them to come and… cause a mess, so… Anyway, don’t mention it. You would’ve done the same for me.”

I nodded, smiling a bit. “Yeah, I would’ve. I’ll treat you to a sandwich when you get back to school.”

“Baguette,” he said suddenly.

“Huh?”

“One of those salami baguettes. Gimme that, and we’re even,” he said, grinning a bit.

“Geez, those cost a small fortune…” I muttered, but soon snorted out of amusement. “Alright, fine. You’ve deserved it.”

It was nice seeing Ichiro smile, even in the condition he’s currently in. From the corner of my eye, I saw Tadaaki scratching his cheek, looking a bit troubled. Hm, what’s on his mind?

“Um, Ui-san?” he said.

Ui turned to face him. “Oh, yes?”

Tadaaki sighed a bit. “…There’s no easy way to hide this, but… We’re gonna discuss stuff that’s most likely too rough for your ears. You know, the stuff that happened in more detail and such. So, would you mind stepping out for a minute?”

Ah, so he wants to talk with Ichiro about what he’s got on his mind? Also, he’s taking a big risk with Ui being here, even if she’s gonna be on the other side of the door. Luckily, Ui’s not the kind of gal who gets suspicious.

“Oh, um, sure,” she said, getting up.

“Thanks,” Tadaaki nodded. “It won’t take long.”

Ui left the room, and as she closed the door, Tadaaki took a seat on the vacant chair, leaning closer to Ichiro. Ichiro seemed to realize what Tadaaki actually had on his mind.

“So, what’s up?” he asked in a low voice.

“…It’s a gang. Tsukuda’s in some juvenile street gang,” Tadaaki revealed, also keeping his voice low.

Ichiro raised his eyebrows in surprise. “No shit? Damn, that’s gonna make things more difficult.”

“Hm, you thinking about revenge?” Tadaaki asked.

Ichiro shrugged. “Well, some kind of payback, at least. Or maybe something that shows them to not fuck with us again.”

“Yeah, I feel you,” I said. “But it’s a gang, Tadaaki said there’s at least a dozen of them in it. Beating them up one by one ain’t an option, they’re just gonna strike back with full force.”

“Well… Shit. Yeah, that’d be a bit too much,” he admitted, frowning a bit.

Shows them, huh…?” I could hear Tadaaki muttering under his breath.

I turned to look at him. “Hm, you got an idea?”

Tadaaki was holding his chin and looking downwards, clearly thinking about something. After a couple of seconds, he raised his head.

“…Maybe, just maybe. I need to look into it.”

I nodded. “You do that. As long as we’ll make those fuckers pay.”

“Oh, they will pay, alright,” Tadaaki said with a grin.

No one had anything more to add. So, with Ichiro knowing about the situation, it was settled, then. We’ll have our revenge one way or another, at the same time ensuring that we’d be left alone. With the conversation done, we decided to invite Ui back in the room. Even though we kept our voices down, I still hoped that she hadn’t heard a word. Tadaaki gave the seat back to her, and now it was time to change the subject. Actually, I already had something on my mind.

“You said that you’ll be back to school in about a week, right? Meaning, at the beginning of next month?”

“Right. Why?” Ichiro asked.

Tadaaki seemed to realize what I was thinking about. “Oh, the freshmen!”

“Ah, right. Hironaka said something about introducing some freshmen to the Coffee Club in the next month,” Ichiro said, having recalled it.

I nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. It’ll be a good thing to have all the members present.”

Ichiro looked excited at first, but then, he frowned. “…Wait, didn’t she also say something about cleaning the club room?”

“…Yeah, she kinda did, didn’t she?” Tadaaki muttered, rubbing his neck.

I was grinding my teeth nervously. “Damn, I had forgotten about that…”

However, in the midst of our anxious sulking, Ui giggled.

“Now, now. It’s important to keep things clean and tidy,” she noted.

She then turned to face me. “Right, Eiji-kun?”

“Huh? O-Oh, yeah, right,” I stuttered.

Noticing my reaction, Ui frowned a bit. “You have been cleaning your room weekly, right, Eiji-kun?”

Slowly getting embarrassed, I faced the other way. “Y-Yeah, now and then.”

But Ui wasn’t about to let me off that easily. “Eiji-kun, we talked about this.”

“Yeah, just, save it for later, alright?” I muttered.

Tadaaki and Ichiro snickered at the sight of Ui scolding me. The mood in the room lightened up, and so we spent the following moments talking about some inside stuff and joking around. It was a fun conversation, honestly. As the minutes went by, I bet even Ichiro forgot that he was currently in a hospital bed. In the midst of our talking, a doctor walked in, informing us that it was time for Ichiro’s daily examination. So, we thought now would be a good moment to make our leave. Saying our goodbyes, and Ichiro thanking Ui for the flowers once more, we left, and soon were back on the street.

Without further ado, we began walking. I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day, so I thought about heading to Ui’s place for some tea. Speaking of Ui, she seemed rather preoccupied. It wasn’t long until she voiced her thoughts.

“Um, about what Ichiro-san said about his father… I assume they haven’t been in a good relation in the past?”

Hm, what should I tell her…? Thinking, I took a glance at Tadaaki. As he saw me looking at him, he nodded slightly. Well, I’m sure Ichiro won’t mind. He’s kinda friends with Ui now, so I guess it’s important for her to know what he’s been going through. With that, I turned back to Ui.

“Yeah, you could say that. Ichiro, he… had a tough upbringing,” I explained.

“He was always growing up in the shadow of his two older sisters. Whatever they accomplished, it set the bar. Anything less than it wasn’t acceptable. Nothing Ichiro did was good enough for his strict father. No matter if he gave it everything he got, it just didn’t meet the standards. He was never praised, only scolded and reproached. And if that wasn’t bad enough, his sisters belittled him, made him feel small about being a boy. He was taking mental beatings day after day, all through his childhood. One day, he decided to rebel back. He began fighting, drinking, smoking… Anything to piss off his father, who’s a police officer. Ichiro dreamed of getting arrested, so that he could stain his father’s reputation. As the years went by, his father just stopped caring, instead pretending that Ichiro was just some freeloader living in his house. So… Yeah. They’ve been very cold to each other, at least until now.”

I looked at Ui. As I guessed, she was shocked to hear all this. But, as I said, it’s for the best to let her know.

“That’s… That’s horrible,” she muttered, sounding compassionate.

I nodded slowly, glancing elsewhere. “Yeah, it is.”

Lowering her head a bit, she said: “…I hope that one day, they can settle their disputes and be a family again.”

“Yeah… Actually, that might’ve been the first step towards it. You saw how surprised Ichiro was about his father crying in front of him,” I noted.

“Yes. I wish the best for him,” Ui said, and turned to face me with a smile. “He sure is lucky to have such good friends as you two.”

Good friends, huh…? Yeah, guess you could say that.

It was only a couple of weeks into our first year in junior high. It was a lunch break. Tadaaki and I were in the cafeteria, when we happened to overhear a dispute not too far away. We saw another freshman. He was being picked on by three older students. Any other freshman would just give in or flee, but this one was different. Any insult the older kids threw at him, he threw a clever one back, and then some. It was actually kinda amusing to watch. However, one insult he threw ticked one of the older kids off, and in a second, all three piled on top of the freshman. Not being fans of unfair fights, Tadaaki and I decided to step in. And so we, along with that other freshman, fought those three older kids, right in the middle of the cafeteria, for all the students to see. Of course, since we were young, we didn’t win that fight. But, I feel like we didn’t lose, either. I guess you could call it a moral victory. The teachers rushed in to break it off only when it was all over. Ever since that day, we became known as violent delinquents. We were constantly in the teachers’ crosshairs. But also, ever since that day, we began hanging out with that freshman. His name was Makino Ichiro, and he’s been our friend ever since.

As we were walking, I noticed Tadaaki lagging behind. Looking at him, he motioned me to move next to him, so that’s what I did. Ui noticed me slipping backwards, so I told her to go on ahead, while Tadaaki and I were following two meters behind her. As she faced the road, Tadaaki leaned closer to me.

“So, about the thing Ichiro wanted to ask me a couple of days ago…” he whispered.

Oh, right, I never got the answer to that. I kept quiet, letting him continue.

“Well, it was about you and… that Hirasawa gal.”

Huh, Ui? I looked at the girl walking in front of us. She was looking at the surrounding scenery, quietly humming to herself.

Smiling a bit, Tadaaki explained: “He wanted to know if you two were, you know, together. Yeah, I know, you told him that you guys were friends, but… after seeing you two at the festival, he just couldn’t believe it.”

Still keeping my eyes on Ui’s back, I whispered: “So, what did you tell him?”

“I told him that ‘I don’t know, you have to ask Eiji’,” he said.

“So, he’ll ask you about it someday. And when he does, you better have an answer ready.”

…Wait, what?

“The hell you mean by that?” I asked.

Tadaaki, however, just smirked, and picked up the pace. Baffled at first, I also hurried up, and we caught up with Ui. However, just after a short moment, Tadaaki seemed to realize something.

“Ah, right. I need to stop by the grocery store.”

Ui turned to face him. “Oh?”

“Yeah, so I’m gonna drop off here,” he said, and jerked his head towards me. “Take care of this guy, alright?”

You cheeky little bastard.

“Ah, okay,” Ui nodded, and waved her hand. “Bye, Tadaaki-san. It was fun.”

“Yeah, likewise. See ya,” Tadaaki said, answering the gesture, and heading off in another direction.

And so, just like many times before, Ui and I were walking alone. Honestly, it wasn’t any different than usual, but that subtle sign Tadaaki gave me and his half-assed excuse to leave us by ourselves… I was a bit nervous, as if I actually was obligated to do or say something. Trying to calm myself, I made some casual chit-chat with Ui, like we always do. After a bit of walking, the bridge came to our view. And I saw Ui eyeing it, all the while thinking about something.

“Ah, would you like to come over for some tea? We also have some biscuits,” she suggested.

Yeah, well, that’s what I was thinking, too. Sure, tea would be nice. And I’m sure the biscuits are homemade and delicious.

But…

As we were coming close to the bridge, I spotted something, and came to a halt. Ui, noticing this, stopped too, and turned to face me, confused.

“Eiji-kun?”

Scratching the back of my neck, I thought about something. Yeah… Yeah, maybe. Maybe not, but if… Hm…

“Actually, I just wanna sit down for a while, if that’s okay,” I said.

Still a bit puzzled, Ui walked over to me. “Oh? Sure, if that’s what you feel like.”

I once again turned to look at the thing I spotted earlier. It was a set of stone stairs, leading down to the riverbank. As I walked over to them, Ui seemed to realize what I had in mind, and followed me. We walked the stairs down, only to find out that there was no river bank. There was just… the river. The stairs led straight into the water itself. I didn’t notice this before because of all the greenery blocking my view. The riverbank itself was on the opposite side, we’d have to cross the bridge to get there. However, it’d be too much trouble, for me at least, so I just took a seat on the stairstep. Ui, seemingly having no problems with this spot, sat down next to me. We sat there, in the shadow of a tree, looking at the river, peacefully flowing right in front of us. A cool but pleasant breeze blew by every now and then. The sound of the water rippling and the trees rustling in the wind… It was peaceful.

“It sure is a nice day,” Ui noted.

“Yeah, it is,” I agreed.

I opened my mouth to say something. However, my inhaling was rather loud and clearly trembling. It caught Ui’s attention. Shit, why am I so nervous?

“You know, uh…” I managed to say.

Ui gave me her attention, cocking her head. “Hm, yes?”

Calm down, Sugimoto. Just ask her the question that’s been on your mind ever since that day. Just a simple question, no harm done.

Taking a calming breath, I rested my elbows on my thighs, clasping my hands. “…Back in July, on my birthday…”

I took a quick glance at Ui, who was sitting quietly, waiting for me to talk. I then turned my gaze downwards.

“You, uh… You gave me a kiss.”

“…Ah!” she exhaled quietly.

Yup, I actually asked about it. Slowly and carefully, I turned to face her. She was facing me, surprised, a small blush forming on her face. Taking some seconds to gather her thoughts, a small, shy smile formed on her face.

“Oh, that…?” she said in a low, soft voice, turning to face the river.

“…That night, you were so… honest. Open and honest about yourself. You told me things that you most likely didn’t want me to know. It must’ve taken a lot of courage.”

She then turned to face me, still smiling softly. “And that’s what I like about you, Eiji-kun. You’re really brave and honest.”

Feeling some crimson forming on my cheeks, I chuckled embarrassedly. “Well, I’m not sure about ‘honest’…”

Ui shook her head. “I know, you sometimes hide behind lies to get yourself out of trouble, but you’re honest when it matters. That’s something I appreciate.”

She then crouched down a bit, wrapping her arms around her knees. “And, well, it’s also because Tamiko-chan once told me something.”

Huh? Though I was puzzled, I stayed quiet to let her continue.

“She said that you were clearly bothered by your past. It was something that was troubling you, something that you wanted to keep hidden. To be completely honest, when your sister and I first met, she told me about your rebellious past.”

…I’m gonna have a long talk with someone when I get home.

Ui chuckled a bit. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it didn’t bother me, because the past Eiji-kun was way different from the Eiji-kun I knew. But, I was still left wondering why you hadn’t told me about it, though I understood how weighty the matter was to you. And then, last July, you told me. Even about the things that even Tamiko-chan didn’t know.”

She then glanced at me from the corner of her eye. “And, well, I felt flattered. Because you trusted me enough to be open about yourself. That’s why I…”

She didn’t manage to finish her sentence. Not that she needed to, since I understood what she meant. Yeah, when I told her about my past back then, it was only because I feared that she’d eventually learn about it in some other way. I wanted to be the one to let her know. She had been a dear friend to me for so long, so it felt wrong to keep things in the dark from her.

“Ah, I see…” I said, grinding the tip of my shoe against the stairstep.

This silence… Sure, it was awkward, but… Ugh, I can’t really explain. It was kinda like a mixture of embarrassment and, well, relief, I guess. That’s why it didn’t feel so crushing. Sometimes you just need a moment of quiet to think about stuff.

“…Um.”

Ui’s voice surprised me a bit, since I didn’t expect for her to have anything more to add.

She turned to look at me. “Mind if I ask you something, too?”

Looking at her eyes for a few seconds, I slowly shook my head. “Uh, no, go ahead.”

“Well, um, it’s about…” She stopped to scratch her cheek. “…about few days ago, on the first festival day. When I was working in our class’ refreshment stall, one of my classmates approached me, and told me that, um, a young man had requested for me especially.”

Ah, that. Now that I think about it, she did ask me about it later that very same day, but I guess my answer was kinda vague. Well, even though a part of me felt like bullshitting my way out of this discussion, I decided to just face it head-on. I had asked her a difficult question, so now it was her turn.

Ui chuckled a bit. “I had a pretty good feeling about who it might be. But, then she decided to elaborate further, saying how the young man had asked for a ‘cute, ponytailed girl’. So, that’s what I’ve been wondering about. Um…”

“What did you mean by it?”

The same question as before. Am I able to answer it this time?

I opened my mouth to answer. However, no words came out, as I didn’t manage to come up with anything to say. Was I embarrassed? Was I just shy? Or… was I scared?

After a few seconds of silence, I finally managed to mutter: “…Take it however you want.”

Ui, however, wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “Eiji-kun…”

Shit, I just… Ugh, I can’t bring myself to…

…I’m a fucking moron.

Quietly sighing out of frustration, I leaned sideways against the stair railing. No matter how much I psyche myself up, how much I assure myself that there’s nothing to be afraid of… Am I really as brave as she believes me to be?

“…However I want, huh…?”

I looked at Ui from the corner of my eye. She seemed to be thinking about something, all the while looking at the river.

“Was it a joke?” she asked, a sheepish smile on her face. “I know how you like to tease people, so…”

“No,” I shook my head.

“Ah, well…” Ui muttered, still keeping her eyes on the river. “You once said that you like my hairstyle, so, was it about that?”

“Nah.”

Ah, I see.

“Oh? Well, then… Um, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but, were you just trying to play a charmer in front of my classmate?”

“Nope.”

So this is how I’ll be able to say it.

“…Don’t tell me Jun-chan put you up to it. She also likes to tease others from time to time.”

“No.”

By denying every wrong option.

“Or… Did you think that you could get yourself a free cookie with smooth-talking? You can be honest about it, I won’t get angry.”

“Nah.”

Until…

“…”

As the questions stopped, I slowly turned to look at her. Ui was silently looking at the river. She seemed preoccupied. I watched as the river crashed into the lowermost stairstep, splashing droplets high up, some of them landing on my shoes. A flock of birds flew low, flying above the river, as if following it, their destination being unknown to me. An elderly couple could be seen walking on the opposite side of the river. Even though sitting under the shadow of a tree was nice at first, I was slowly starting to feel cold, so I slipped my hands into my hoodie’s pockets.

And then, from the corner of my eye, I saw Ui moving a bit. She had lowered her head, burying the lower half of her face in between her knees. Despite that, however, I still noticed how blushed her cheeks were. Once again, she was watching the river.

“…In that case…”

Turning her head slightly, she looked straight at me.

“Did you mean me?”

I scratched my eyebrow, swallowed, and took a deep breath.

Do it.

“…Yeah, I guess.”

Yeah, no. There’s no way I’ll be able to simply say ‘yes’, I’m always mincing my words. But, no matter how you look at it, that was undoubtedly an affirmative response. So, I guess I did it.

I turned to look at Ui. Sure enough, my answer had left her surprised, the blush still remaining on her face. However, she soon giggled a bit, and smiled softly.

“Ah, I see. No wonder you couldn’t tell me. It’s… kinda embarrassing, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” I muttered, glancing downwards.

Ui raised her head, resting her chin on her knee. “…Well, thank you, Eiji-kun. It makes me happy to hear you say it.”

I glanced at her, smiling a bit. “Yeah, me too.”

With that, we both turned our gazes towards the river. Was that it? Was that the thing I was so scared of, afraid of, nervous of? Talking openly to the girl who’s been nothing but good to me for the past years, always supporting me, accepting me for who I am, ignoring my stained past? I could feel a small sense of frustration growing inside me. It was fueled by those thoughts. Me being nervous, scared… It was all for nothing. And the frustration, on the other hand, gave strength to my self-confidence. Because of it, I didn’t even notice how hard my heart was pumping.

“Ui-san?” I called her in a low voice.

“Yes?” she answered, keeping her eyes on the river.

I tilted my head backwards, looking at the partly cloudy sky, the edges of the clouds slowly starting to show hues of orange.

“I like you.”

Ui’s gentle chuckle could be heard.

“I know.”

“You do?” I asked.

She nodded slightly. “Yes.”

I kept my eyes to the sky, my hands feeling restless in my pockets. “…Okay.”

In the end, it was only thanks to frustration that I managed to confess to her. I guess I should’ve felt nervous, like I was going to puke or something, but all those other feelings were overrun by the said frustration. Sure, when it slowly calms down, I’ll undoubtedly realize what I’ve just said, and probably punch a wall out of shock or something. But it wasn’t topical right now, so whatever. I guess I should feel proud of myself or something.

And then, after a moment of sitting in silence, I could hear Ui dragging herself closer, until I felt our legs touching. Carefully and gently, she leaned against me, as if to ask for permission. As I didn’t say or do anything that would’ve indicated a negative answer, Ui stayed there. I could feel her warmth seeping into my side, slowly spreading across my whole body. My heart was beating like crazy, and I bet even Ui felt it. After sitting like that for a while, she cocked her head, resting it on my shoulder. Her smell was gentle, feminine, and pleasant. It sent chills down my spine. One would think that I’d be flustered, but no. It all felt like bliss. Like a dream. Like… a blessing.

I guess this was her answer.

Could this be counted as a successful confession? Was she now my girlfriend, or is there still a long way to go?

I don’t know. I don’t know a damn thing.

And, to be honest, I don’t care. What the future has to offer, that’s a worry for tomorrow. Because right now I don’t have anything to worry about. I was sitting on the steps of stone stairs, facing the river, and sharing the moment with the girl I liked. Nothing else mattered to me right now.

Following the sound of my heart, I rested my head against hers. Her soft hair felt good against my cheek. I could feel my heart rate calming down. I didn’t feel cold anymore, I only felt the pleasant warmth. The river had never looked so beautiful. It felt like the whole town around us had come to a complete stop. It was peaceful.

I wanted us to stay like this forever.

I’m not sure how long we sat like that, maybe a minute or two, when Ui suddenly spoke to me, her voice being low and soft.

“Eiji-kun?”

“…Yeah?”

“You’re really brave, you know?” she said.

I shrugged a bit with my free elbow. “At times.”

It earned me a small giggle from Ui.

“Eiji-kun?” she called out for me again.

“Yeah?”

“Would you like to come over for some tea?” she asked.

“…Of course.”

However, neither of us moved an inch.

Oh well, it was a beautiful day, and we weren’t in a hurry. So, might as well stay like this for a bit longer…

…Huh.

It might be just my euphoria-filled mind playing tricks on me, but…

I swear I just saw something green hovering above the river.

Chapter Text

The sound of rock music filled the club room. The stereos had been cranked up so high I could hear the coffee cups jingling in the cupboard. A rag in hand and a bottle of cleaner in the other, I was wiping the kitchen area’s counters clean, all the while banging my head to the beat of the music. On the other side of the room swung Tadaaki, carefully emptying the shelf of all its contents and cleaning away the dust on the shelf surfaces. Ichiro, even though he came back to school only a couple of days ago and was still recovering, still had some moves in him, which he wasn’t afraid to show as he swayed a mop from side to side across the floor. Sure, it wasn’t the first time the guys and I had given in to the rhythm, but I can’t say we had ever done it while cleaning.

And then the door opened.

“For crying out loud, could you turn it down!?” a feminine voice could be heard yelling.

In an instant, Tadaaki plunged towards the stereos, lowering the volume significantly. All the dancing stopped as we turned to look at the doorway, in which stood Hironaka.

She sighed, putting her hand on her hip. “Seriously, you guys. I could hear it all the way to the ground floor.”

“Ah, well, this is our favorite band, can’t help it,” Tadaaki noted, grasping yet another handful of CD-cases from the shelf, and setting them aside.

Hironaka frowned a bit. “What kind of an image are you thinking of giving the freshmen if you act like this?”

“A light-hearted kind,” Ichiro said as he mopped the floor.

I lowered the bottle of cleaner to snap my fingers. “You said it. There’s already enough tight-assed clubs with their schedules and regulations. Who even wants that on top of a regular school day?”

“You have a very wrong impression of club activities, Sugimoto…” Hironaka muttered as she stepped into the room.

“Maybe, maybe not,” I shrugged, and picked up the cleaner. “In any case, if I can’t blast my music as loud as I want, the thing is not for me.”

“A light-hearted club or not, you still should keep it down before one of the teachers gets fed up,” she noted.

Hironaka watched as the guys and I cleaned the place, all the while slowly walking around the club room, seemingly in thought.

“Hmm, the rugs and couch cushions have been dusted and aired, all the kitchen equipment have been cleaned, and I just took out the trash… Well, looks like we’re just about done,” she said.

The fact gave us a small boost of motivation, and we continued on cleaning, while Hironaka walked around the room, doing some finishing touches. It was a Thursday afternoon. The classes were over, and just as we had discussed before, Hironaka barged in the club room with a bunch of cleaning utensils. We’ve spent the last half-an-hour getting this place all shiny and tidy. Sure, at first we weren’t so motivated, but that quickly changed when Hironaka snapped at us, and as we’ve learned, she’s a force to be reckoned with when she gets angry. Well, to be honest, a bit of cleaning doesn’t hurt. It was actually kinda nice seeing the club room this clean.

When we thought we were done, Hironaka gave the room one last checkup. To our relief, she gave it a green light. With that, the guys and I crashed on the couches.

“Oh, man, that took a toll,” Tadaaki sighed.

Ichiro nodded, laying his head on the couch’s armrest. “I’m gonna be back at the hospital at this rate.”

Resting my wrist on my forehead, I muttered: “I feel like my lifespan was just reduced by a year.”

“Oh, grow up, you guys,” Hironaka sighed, shaking her head a bit. “If cleaning one room makes you complain that much, I don’t even want to know what will happen when you’ll eventually live on your own.”

I moved the wrist off my forehead, staring at the ceiling. “Yeah, well, that’s not relevant now.”

“That’s right. But what actually is relevant is the fact that I’m tired as shit,” Ichiro murmured.

Tadaaki waved his hand. “I feel you, dude. Eiji, your turn to work the magic.”

My turn, huh…? I don’t even remember who made the coffee last time, and I was too tired to recall such a trivial thing. However, I agreed that coffee would be just fine right about now, so I wasn’t gonna complain. Staring at the ceiling for a few seconds more, I slowly got up, and made my way to the kitchen area.

“Strong stuff, I presume?” I asked.

Affirmative murmurs could be heard.

“Flat White,” Tadaaki ordered.

It was followed by Ichiro’s order: “Red Eye.”

I nodded as I dug out all the required stuff from the cabinets. “Guess I’ll make myself a Lungo.”

I was just about to start preparing the coffee, when I realized something, and turned around. Hironaka was still standing there. With the cleaning done, she didn’t really have a reason to be here anymore, so she looked kinda awkward. Noticing my gaze, she hastily fixed her posture.

“A-Ah, well, I guess I should be going, then,” she said.

But, before she had a chance to even turn around, Tadaaki asked: “Why? A meeting or something?”

“Oh, um, no. Nothing urgent.”

Tadaaki raised his hand slightly. “Then what’s the hurry? Sit down and have some coffee, that’s the least we can give you.”

Hironaka seemed a bit surprised, and thought about it. Guess she thought we saw her as a burden at first, or perhaps she just wasn’t eager to spend her afternoon in the same room with three delinquent guys

“…Well, I’d like to, but I’m not much of a coffee drinker,” she explained.

“That ain’t a problem,” Tadaaki muttered, a bit amused, and turned to me. “Hey, Eiji. Light Mocha with a dab of caramel.”

Ah, so cut the espresso by a third, and add a bit of extra sweetness, resulting in a non-coffee drinker friendly coffee. Great idea. Finding a couple more extra ingredients, I got to work.

And so we soon were drinking our coffees, talking about some inside stuff, and quietly admiring the clean club room. Hironaka’s pleasantly surprised face after she took the first sip brought a smile to my face. I expected for her to be quiet in the midst of our talking, but to my surprise, she actually had lots of things to say, though most of it was just unamused commenting on our discussions. Well, as long as she doesn’t feel awkward. But anyway, we didn’t clean the club room just for fun. We cleaned it because Hironaka would be introducing the club to some freshmen. And oh man, if we can’t reel those kids in, I’m afraid the Coffee Club won’t be around next year. Since Hironaka would be busy with some student council stuff tomorrow, we wouldn’t be meeting the freshmen until next Monday.

Finishing his coffee with a satisfied sigh, Tadaaki asked: “Anything going on today, Eiji?”

“Hm? Why?” I asked back.

He shrugged. “Just asking. I ain’t got anything planned, but just wondering if you guys want to head to town or something.”

I thought about it, before bringing my cup closer to my lips. “Maybe, if I feel like it.”

I took a sip, savouring the taste, and added: “But not now, later.”

“Oh? Got something planned?” he asked.

I nodded, and before he even had a chance to fuck with me, I said: “Yeah, I think I’ll just hang out with Ui this afternoon.”

He chuckled quietly, though I could sense the small disappointment in him caused by me beating him to mention Ui.

“Alright, fair enough.”

Ui?” I could hear Hironaka asking.

“Ah, yeah. One of the Sakuragaoka girls,” I explained.

Confounded a bit, she just gave a slight nod for an answer. Her reaction caused me to snicker a bit.

By now I had realized there wasn’t really a point of hiding anything anymore, which is why I could explain it to her so casually, even though there was no actual need to tell her anything. After all, she’s seen Ui only once, last winter. She barely even knows her. But whatever. As I said, there’s no point in hiding it.

I finished my coffee, setting the cup on the table. Ah, long pulled espresso sure is good, but it’s even better when you can choose your own coffee beans and make it a tad stronger. Hironaka had finished her mocha minutes ago, having clearly enjoyed it. Well, it was basically just a caramel flavored hot chocolate with a spoonful of espresso, but whatever; I still bet it was tasty. So, the only one who had still yet to finish their coffee was Ichiro. However, as I looked at him, I noticed him just staring at his cup, looking a bit preoccupied, and perhaps even nervous.

As I expected, he had something to say: “Uh, Eiji? Mind if I ask you something?”

…Ah, here it comes, just as Tadaaki told me last week. A grin almost slipped on my face, but I managed to hold my poker face.

I shook my head. “Nah, not at all. Shoot.”

He took a look at Hironaka and Tadaaki, pressing his lips together timidly, and then turned to face me.

“What’s the, uh… What’s the deal with you and that gal?”

I raised my eyebrow. “You still asking about it? Didn’t I explain it to you already?”

Letting out a small sigh of frustration, he elaborated: “Alright, I’ll come out straight with this: Are you two dating? I mean, the way you two acted back at the festival and all… Y-You know what I mean, right?”

It got quiet in the club room, save for the rock music playing on the stereo. Tadaaki had an amused smirk on his face as he kept switching glances between me and Ichiro. Hironaka, though an outsider to this whole affair, looked a bit curious. Well, no surprise there, she asked me that very same question only months ago. Tapping my fingers on my thigh a couple of times, I stood up, picked up my cup from the table, and walked to the kitchen area.

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“Wha—?” Ichiro muttered, his voice being a mixture of confusion and frustration.

“The hell does that mean?”

I rinsed the cup a couple of times, wiped it dry with a rag, and set it down on the counter. I then turned around, leaning backwards against the counter.

“I said I don’t know,” I repeated with a shrug. “I don’t think we’re dating, but I’m sure we’re not just friends anymore. Maybe somewhere in between?”

That was my honest answer. I seriously wasn’t sure where Ui and I stood in terms of relationship. I mean, yeah, we both pretty much know about each other’s feelings, but that’s about it. The few times I’ve hung out with her after that afternoon at the riverbank have been just the same as usual. Well, kinda. There’s this, I don’t know, atmosphere, I guess? Some kind of tension, constantly lingering in the air. Though, it’s not a negative sort... Ugh, I can’t really explain it.

A bit confused, Ichiro glanced at Hironaka and Tadaaki, and then at me. “…I still don’t quite get it.”

He then nodded slowly, before sipping his coffee.

“But whatever. Congrats, I guess.”

Hm, he decided to drop the subject rather quickly. Well, his attitude towards my ‘other life’ has changed immensely over the past month. Good for him, and it also saves me a lot of trouble. I really didn’t care for his constant questions back then, and I can’t say I’ll miss them.

Taking a look at the other two, I saw Tadaaki grinning a bit, as if out of pride or something. Proud of me, or proud of himself? I mean, he was the one who gave me that subtle hint and push on the back that afternoon after our visit at the hospital. And then there was Hironaka, seemingly surprised. She was the one who, though inadvertently, made me think more about my feelings towards Ui. I’m sure she wanted to ask about it in more detail, but I guess she didn’t want to obtrude too much. Instead, she changed the subject.

Festival…? Wait, you mean, you guys visited that school’s festival?” Hironaka asked.

“Oh, uh, right, we did,” I nodded, and made my way back to the couches.

Hironaka frowned a bit. “Seriously, skipping school to visit an all-girls school’s festival…”

Tadaaki raised his hand. “Now just hold on a minute. We behaved ourselves, no harm done. We just ate snacks and hung out.”

As Ichiro was finishing his coffee, he seemed to recall something. “Yeah. Oh, and then there was that kick-ass music concert.”

Tadaaki snapped his fingers with a nod. “Right on.”

Hironaka glanced at the guys, looking a bit suspicious. “In any case, the point stands.”

She then took a look at her watch. “Well, thank you for the coffee. Guess I should get going.”

I, too, took a look at my watch, and was met with a surprise. “Damn, we’ve been here almost an hour!”

It was a bit above the average time we usually spend here. The school allows for students to be on school property three hours after the classes end, before everyone gets kicked out. Or, at least I think so, I’ve never witnessed it myself, nor ever heard of such an incident. But on the other hand, who the hell would like to stay three extra hours in school? The longest we’ve ever stayed here has been two hours, it has happened a few times when we’ve decided to watch a movie. But most of the times we drink a cup of coffee, maybe watch some show or play some games, and head off.

Saying her goodbyes, Hironaka left the club room, leaving the guys and I to pack our stuff. We, too, soon made our leave. On our way to the shoe lockers, Tadaaki reminded us about what would happen next Monday: Freshmen. Freshies. New potential club members!

…Now that I think about it, we could’ve spent the time talking about it with Hironaka, and maybe made plans for how we’re going to get them interested in the club. Eh, whatever. We’ll see what happens.

Sometimes I stop by my home to drop off my stuff and get changed, and sometimes I just can’t bother to, instead heading straight to the Hirasawa residence. This was one of those occasions. Well, not that it bothers me much, my school bag is way lighter than it’s supposed to be. This route to Ui’s place is as familiar as ever, though I’ve noticed a few changes over the years. One of the houses was demolished, and looks like they’re currently building a new one in its place. Also, there used to be an elderly man sitting on his porch, but one day he simply disappeared, and now the house looks eerily empty. I can only imagine what happened, and it makes me feel kinda blue, even though I didn’t even know the guy. Well, that’s life for you, with its ups and downs.

Half-an-hour walk later I arrived at the Hirasawa residence. Hm, it still makes me think how damn thin this house is. Nothing wrong with it, though, it’s still quite spacious for what it is. Three bedrooms, study and all. Well, now that I think about it, it ain’t really that different from my house, just thinner and one story taller. After having thought enough trivial bullshit for now, I walked to the front door, opening it. Yeah, I guess I’m allowed to be this bold. I tried my luck with this trick a few days ago, and Ui didn’t seem to mind it, so I guess it’s okay.

“Yo!” my yell echoed in the foyer.

Steps could be heard from upstairs, until I saw a familiar girl peeking into the stairway.

“Ah, Eiji-kun! I didn’t know you were coming,” Ui greeted me.

Dressed in casual clothes, she was also wearing an apron. Ah, I guess I picked a good time to visit.

I kicked off my shoes, stepping in further. “Yeah, well, I didn’t exactly message you about it.”

Ui shook her head. “Ah, that’s okay. You’re always welcome here.”

Smiling to myself, I began climbing up the stairs. “What’re you cooking?”

“Baking,” she corrected me. “A pie. You picked a good moment to visit, I w