After a gentle knock, our eyes were locked onto the lightly knocked door for a few moments.
Isshiki was about to leave the room, but after glancing back and forth between us and the door, she quietly returned to her seat. Well, I can only imagine how awkward it’d be to meet eyes with the visitors on the way out.
Before long, festive voices came from the other side of the thin wall.
“It’s not like we need their help…”
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Besides, I don’t really know all that much, either.”
The voices consisted of a familiar blunt speaker and a tone that, while amiable, seemed forceful.
There was a knock at the door again, only this time it came across rhythmically.
“Come in,” Yukinoshita answered, and the door slowly opened. Appearing within the opening was Ebina-san’s face.
“Hallo, hallo! Do you guys have a minute?”
“Hina? Oh, sure, come in, come in!” Yuigahama motioned her in with her hand, and Ebina-san returned a nod. Indeed, the quicker you enter, the less wind makes it inside. My seat is the closest to the door, after all…
“Excuse us for the intrusion,” Ebina-san said in polite greeting as she entered. Following wordlessly behind her, with a gloomy expression and averted eyes, was Miura.
“What can we do for you?” Yukinoshita asked.
Miura’s mouth distorted as she shot a glance at Isshiki. “And why’s she here?”
“Oh, you know, that’s exactly what I wanted to say… or something!” Isshiki shot back a smile as Miura twirled her hair with a displeased glare.
Oh, what a bizarre atmosphere… I thought. Her perception must have been similar, as Yuigahama came in to mediate. “Ummm, does having more people here make it harder for you to talk?”
“No, not really…,” Miura answered, her attitude still curt. This certainly didn’t look like she’d be able to talk about anything with ease.
“We can always make Isshiki leave if you want,” I offered.
It’s not like you’re a member of the club or anything… You being here as if it’s a given is the abnormality, you know?
Ebina-san patted Miura’s shoulder to calm her down. “Now, now, Yumiko. Just think about what you want to talk about, see. If you don’t get too specific, it should be fine. Right?”
“That’s true… I imagine it may be difficult to discuss… I don’t mind, however.” Yukinoshita glanced at me, seeking confirmation.
I acknowledged her with a nod. “Well, why don’t we just hear you out first? If it’s too confusing, you can talk more personally with the others afterwards.”
“Uh huh, that sounds good… Oh, but hey, Iroha-chan might have some good ideas, too,” Yuigahama added.
Isshiki clearly wasn’t pleased with being treated like an outsider, but I slowly inclined my head to Yuigahama, who answered with a relieved smile. I felt rather sorry for her since she had to be considerate to both parties.
“Let’s start from the top then,” Yukinoshita said, restarting the conversation.
Miura eyed Isshiki for a moment longer, but eventually removed her glare. She fiddled with her hair as though looking for split ends, then opened her mouth to speak.
“…Well, you know? I was kinda thinking about making chocolate… Um, we have exams and all next year… So this is kinda like our last time or something.”
She quietly trailed off with a voice dripping with shame and embarrassment. Her cheeks gradually reddened as she spoke.
However, there was some lingering loneliness in her words, though that very well might be something I perceived of my own accord.
Next year, around this time of the season, we weren’t obligated to attend school.
It also happened to be right in the middle of the testing season, with exams for private universities being held during this time as well.
Therefore, this was going to be the last Valentine’s Day of our high school life. The event would probably have a completely different meaning to us later in our lives.
For example, once you became a university student or a working member of society, you’d probably see Valentine’s Day in another light. As an adult, I doubt you’d experience joy from or celebrate receiving chocolate. It’s similar to snow: seeing it fall was so rare and fun that you’d get ecstatic from seeing the snow symbol on the weather channel when you were younger. But now, you just saw everything as a bother, whether it’s commuting to school, the cold weather, or the thought of getting wet.
“…So like, I figured I’d give it a go or something,” Miura continued as she twirled her hair, trying to hide her blush.
The words that came out of her mouth as her hair danced around her fingers were certainly agreeable to some extent.
To those it may be concerned, it was without a doubt the last Valentine’s Day of their lives.
That said, there weren’t many here who could sympathize with her. Isshiki still had another year left, which meant it didn’t feel all that real to her. Her mouth was open as though she didn’t find it to be that big of a deal while Yukinoshita was thinking of something with her hand placed to her chin.
Yuigahama, however, inflated her cheeks. She narrowed her eyes and gave Miura a stern look.
“…Yumiko, didn’t you say handmade chocolate would be too pushy?”
“…W-Well—“ Miura was at a loss for words, quietly trying to avert her eyes. But Yuigahama followed her gaze in a manner that wouldn’t allow her to run away.
Ebina-san soothed Yuigahama who was groaning in displeasure. “Now, now, what’s the problem? I think making chocolate would be good, too.”
“Huh? You’re gonna do it too, Hina?” Yuigahama asked, surprised.
“Yep. Well, it’s more like I’ll be accompanying Yumiko or something like that. It wouldn’t hurt to learn myself, anyway.”
“Ohh, that’s kinda surprising…”
“Really? Like, if I learn, it’d come in handy for goodies at like comiket,” Ebina-san went on.
In watching the two converse, I was overcome by a sense of discomfort.
…Goodies? Goodies, huh? Hmmm? I looked at Ebina-san, finding her words strange, and she turned her head towards me. A glance from beyond the lenses of her glasses questioned me as if asking if there was something wrong. I shook my head in response.
Often, handmade things, either as goodies or presents, were used as formality to maintain a sense of distance outside of friendships. Ebina-san should be aware of this, yet she still sought to know the process of making obligatory chocolate.
In other words, it indicates she’s thinking about someone, even if only a little…
…Way to go, Tobe. You’re actually making some progress here. Then again, I don’t even know if it’s Tobe that she wants to give chocolate to because it could be for a complete stranger for all that we know. I mean, seriously, who’s Tobe?
With those thoughts running rampant in my mind, a slight warmth began filling my heart as I watched Ebina-san. Then, her eyebrows twitched. She let out a rotten snicker and her glasses sparkled.
“Yeah, you definitely gotta go with handmade chocolate! I think you should try giving Hayato-kun some bro-chocolate, Hikitani-kun!”
“Yeah right, I’m not doing that…”
Alright, Ebina-san isn’t changing anytime soon… in more ways than one. Anyway, what did she say just now? Bro-choco? Tomo-choco? What the heck is that? Chibi Maruko’s grandfather?1
“It’s not like he’s accepting any, right?”
“You’re in the clear if you’re a guy!”
The idea’s already out of the question from the start.
We had to listen to Ebina-san, though… After all, the person who’d normally stop her was making a troubled face, still fiddling with her hair.
In the meantime, I ignored Ebina-san, who kept going on about bro-choco and homo-choco.
Sitting next to her, Isshiki crossed her arms and groaned. “That’s true. Now it’s much harder for us since he’s already declared he isn’t accepting anything.”
Yep—wait, no, the problem isn’t that, but that we’re both guys here… Hold on, on second thought, he seems like he’d happily accept chocolate from guys since they wouldn’t cause him any trouble… But you know what!? There’d clearly be other kinds of trouble from that instead! And that’s the kind of development that would score zero points with me!
“What should we do…?”
“Haa… Like totally.”
When Isshiki’s and Miura’s sighs overlapped, they lifted their faces. Their gazes clashed as if fireworks were on the verge of being lit…
Oh man, talk about scary…
× × ×
I went down to the first floor to use the vending machine in front of the school store, where I purchased a can of MAX COFFEE with a click2.
I let out a profound sigh as I took the can.
As a guy, I couldn’t help but shrink in my seat while bearing witness to the ongoing battle between Isshiki and Miura as they silently exchanged sparks. I was tucking in my shoulders so much that I was starting to resemble Slenderman of the Western urban legends.
I got up to clean my hands. Afterwards, I made my way back to the clubroom, sipping my can of coffee to energize my exhausted body. As I climbed the stairs, I spotted an individual loitering around in front of the clubroom door.
She made restless glances periodically, accompanied by the alternating flops and bounces of her blue hair styled in a ponytail.
“…Huh, what’re you doing?” I ended up calling out to her, finding her to be too suspicious. Her ponytail jumped and she faced me in a frightful manner.
She was behaving so cautiously that she resembled a mountain cat that would pop out in the middle of the mountains. I had to the urge to click my tongue and use my coffee as bait, but this wasn’t the time to be acting so lax while trying to feed a wild animal.
What I should be doing is trying to name her, not lure her in! Umm, let’s see… Kawa-something should be good. Heeeey, Kawa-something-san. I called her internally, asking her what she needed in the process. “Do you need something?”
Upon hearing the question, Kawa-something-san let out a relieved sigh. She then proceeded to motion me over to the end of the hallway with her hand. Oh, that’s right, her name is Kawasaki Saki-san. I knew that.
While sending glances towards the clubroom, she asked, “D-Do you have a second?”
“Uh, why not go inside? It’s cold out here.”
From what I could tell, she had some business with the Service Club. Knowing that, I honestly just wanted to get in the heated room as soon as possible. But Kawasaki paused to think and then frantically shook her hands.
“Huh…? Wait, here is fine! I’m fine here! I just had something to ask Yukinoshita, that’s all…”
Why don’t you just ask her directly then…?
“Yukinoshita’s inside if you need her. So just go in already. It’s cold here, and I’ll get sick.”
The hallway of the special building was filled with a frigidity that might’ve been caused by windows being left open to air out some of the classrooms. Chills ran up my body, starting from my feet. The windows rattled in response to the wind blowing in, which sounded like they were shivering in reaction to the wind as well.
“I’m… not all that cold or anything…” Kawasaki said, turning her face away from me.
Well, you might be okay with it, but I’m not… There’d be problems if I were to get sick because of this. Spreading the cold to Komachi, or trying to recover from it, would invite all kinds of issues.
On another note, as a citizen of Chiba, the best way to cure a cold would be to consume as much garlic as possible, doused with a ton of spices. After that, a warm can of MAX COFFEE and some sleep would do the trick. And the following day, you’d find yourself in the hospital. And that’s why I think we should stay cooped in at home in order to avoid catching a cold.
The Kawasaki home was also no stranger to housing a test-taking student. Should the younger Kawasaki brother, Taishi, catch a cold and end up infecting Komachi, I may have to dirty my hands with sins and blood…
“Just go in,” I coarsely stated, my voice growing sharp due to my hostility towards the poisonous insect called Taishi for daring to approach my Komachi.
Kawasaki caved in. “I-If you say so…”
As long you understand. I’d like to lower the chances of Komachi getting potentially sick and all.
“Well, can’t have you getting sick either,” I said, opening the door. I nodded to her, urging her to enter.
Appearing dazed, she looked back.
“…O-Okay,” she said, answering with a voice in contrast to her intimidating appearance and walking reluctantly inside.
She looks like a delinquent at a glance, but she’s really just an honest, good girl you’d find anywhere. I thought as I followed her into the room.
“Welcome back, Hikki… Huh, Saki?”
Yuigahama turned towards us with a curious look, twisting her upper body and cocking her head to the side.
With her awkward response, Kawasaki became the center of attention in the room.
Yukinoshita blinked at her in question while Isshiki slightly shrunk in fear. No, no, Kawa-something-san might look scary, but she really isn’t, okay?
Ebina-san, on the other hand, ecstatically shouted out to her. “Oh, hey there, Saki-Saki. Hallo, hallo!”
“Don’t call me Saki-Saki.” Kawasaki snarled.
To cool her down, Yuigahama extended a chair to her. “It’s pretty rare to see you stop by here, Saki… Then again, this is the first time, isn’t it?”
They’ve must gotten pretty friendly after the field trip for her to be calling her Saki now. I just couldn’t keep my tears from flowing knowing that Kawa-something Saki-san was finally able to have someone recall her real name, Saki. Lately, I’ve been feeling so emotional that even the weekly Precures standing their ground was enough to make me bawl.
Yep, yep, girls getting along is a wonderful thing. Very, I thought as my body warmed up. Meanwhile, Yukinoshita prepared some tea in a paper cup and inquired, “So, what do you need from us today?”
Though Kawasaki ignited the conversation, she wasn’t quite able to continue. Oh yeah, she mentioned how she wanted to talk to Yukinoshita about something. Kawasaki groaned, unsure of how to proceed. She was interrupted by the sound of nails tapping on the table next to her.
From that direction, Miura had a displeased look. Kawasaki, however, wasn’t very appreciative of her attitude and stared her down, Miura doing the same thing right back.
“Excuse me, who says we’re done with my issues?”
“Ha? You’re just drinking tea, aren’t you?”
I take back what I said earlier. Kawasaki-san is super scary…
Miura and Kawasaki stared daggers into each other, neither of them giving an inch. Terrible chemistry between the two of you as always, huh…? Watching the two caused Isshiki to freeze up.
In that unbending space, Ebina-san interjected. “Okay, okay, calm down, Yumiko. Saki-Saki, you’re here to talk about something, right? If you don’t mind, we’d like to listen, too.”
“I believe we’re the ones that’ll be helping…”
“Anyway, talk to us, hm?” Ebina-san asked, apparently not lending an ear at all to Yukinoshita’s grumbling.
Kawasaki shot glances at Yukinoshita, Yuigahama, and then me. She sighed and spoke.
“Well, I had some questions about making chocolate…”
The instant she asked, Miura guffawed. “What, you’re also gonna give someone chocolate? That’s hilarious.”
The two, once again, ferociously exchanged glares.
“…Don’t lump me together with you. I’ll have you know I’m not interested at all in what you want to do with them.”
…Stop it! Please get along!
After watching their quarrel, Yukinoshita sighed and shook her head. Your “how deplorable” face doesn’t mean much considering you’re just like them most of the time… Oh, but, recently, the Yukinon with the jagged heart3 cutting knife that hurts everyone hasn’t been in action that much.
Isshiki mumbled, watching the two girls who wouldn’t back down from each other. “Senpai, your acquaintances really are all weird people…”
Assaulted by their glares, Isshiki immediately retreated behind me. Remember what I said about stepping on landmines…? You’re acting like a dumb cat, you know… And besides, I’m just as scared of these two as you are!
Anyway, let’s move the conversation forward since that’s the only way to be freed from their hostility.
“So, what’s this about chocolate?”
“My little sister heard some things about Valentine’s Day at her nursery, and now she wants to make some… Do you know anything small that little kids can make?”
“Anything small that little kids can make…” Yukinoshita nodded, repeating what she heard.
Ebina-san tilted her head. “Weren’t you good at household chores, Saki-Saki?”
Oh yeah, Kawasaki takes care of her house quite a bit since both her parents are busy, as well as her having a lot of siblings. I do recall seeing her with shopping bags with a long green onion sticking out of one of them. So that means she should be good at cooking, too. I looked at her and she turned her face away in awkwardness.
“…Um, the things I make are kinda plain. I don’t think kids would like them.”
“If you don’t mind telling us, what exactly are you proficient at, Kawasaki-san?” Yukinoshita asked, only to be followed with a silence.
With a stutter, Kawasaki answered, “S-S…”
S… Sweets? That sounds like something kids would enjoy. Back when I was younger, there was a time when I fought with Komachi over the Santa Claus sweet on top of the Christmas cake… Though at the time, we ended up finding out that it wasn’t all that tasty. Komachi and I stopped eating it and left it up to our dad to throw it away.
But what she wanted to say wasn’t what it seemed. Everyone looked at her, waiting for her to continue.
“S-Simmered potato balls…”
The room was silenced by her answer that was so unimaginably plain. Everyone’s responses had been so blunt that she started shedding tears, apparently a sign of how embarrassing it was for her.
Realizing that, Yuigahama made a determined face and tried to soothe Kawasaki with an energetic voice.
“That sounds great! I can’t even cook! You’re totally amazing in my book! Right, Yukinon!?”
When asked, Yukinoshita nodded her head in earnest. “That’s true. Potato balls remind me of cat balls, so it’s rather cute don’t you think?”
“Isn’t that follow-up kinda weird!?” Yuigahama turned around with a bewildered face. You’re totally right, you can’t even call that a follow-up.
What the heck are cat balls, anyway…? Are you perhaps talking about how cats curl into a ball when they sleep? And when you roll them around, they give you this incredibly displeased look? Okay, sure, even I think that’s pretty cute, even if only for a little. But long-haired cats are like mops and attract a lot of dust, so be careful there!
Anyway, let’s stop thinking about cats and focus on Kawasaki. Then again, that weird follow-up by Yukinoshita embarrassed her even more that she was shaking like a baby kitten that was just given away. I’m so sorry that she doesn’t know how to make feel people better…
As compensation, if you could even call it that, I coughed once and added, “Well, if you’re able to cook those, you should be good.”
“Oh, that’s true. It is plain, though…” Isshiki repeated after me and answered. Although she looked confused, she wasn’t acting disrespectful or derisive.
“Yep, that’s totally something Saki-Saki would make, too!” Ebina-san erected her index finger, flashing an Ebi-Ebi smile.
Kawasaki started squirming this time, clearly finding all the praise uncomfortable, when suddenly she stopped. I followed her gaze; it was directed at Miura, seemingly concerned what she might end up saying.
Miura, however, took a fixed look at her and looked away in disinterest. With a small voice, she whispered as though speaking to no one in particular, “So you can cook.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I can…”
As she twirled her hair with the tip of her fingers, her voice was slightly tinged with respect. I imagine Miura-san couldn’t quite cook herself, either… As a maiden, it might’ve been a skillset she aspired to have.
“If Kawasaki-san is able to cook, I suppose all we’ll need is to pitch a menu of suggestions.” Contemplating, Yukinoshita placed her hand to her chin and tilted her head.
“D-Don’t forget me! I wanna know, too! If kids can do it, so can I!” Yuigahama energetically raised her hand.
Yukinoshita sadly lowered her eyes. “…I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”
“You’re being way too honest, Yukinon!”
“Actually, she didn’t say that it’d be impossible, so she’s being considerate, if anything.”
“Just how hopeless do you two think I am!?”
You’re just not self-aware enough… When it came to Yuigahama, neither menus nor the process of cooking were the problems. It’s her habitual need to throw in her ideas of hidden flavors that made things worse. The thing she made long ago with Yukinoshita had turned into something edible at the end, after all. Well, it’s not like there weren’t problems with Yukinoshita’s teaching either…
“Hey, what about me?”
“Right, right, let us in on this, too!”
Miura and Ebina, looking tired of Kawasaki’s side of the story, spoke up in displeasure while Isshiki raised her hand slightly.
“Oh, I’d like to participate for reference.”
Seeing them, Yukinoshita sighed.
“I don’t mind…” She said, sending me a glance.
“…Well, go ahead and see what you can come up with. They’re the ones who’ll be doing the work, anyway.”
“That’s true… You’re right; I’ll put something appropriate together, so I’d like to have some of your time if you don’t mind…”
Yukinoshita looked at Kawasaki, Ebina-san, and then Miura. The three of them nodded back in agreement.
× × ×