After spending time at the club, I shifted gears into working mode at the community center I headed to.
I waited briefly at the entrance for Isshiki to come, but she never showed up even though it was the same time as always.
It’s possible that she might’ve gone inside first. I gave up on waiting for Isshiki and decided to head inside to the Training Room.
It felt quieter than usual inside of the community center. They weren’t having their regular dance or whatever circle activities today.
Nevertheless, there were talking voices leaking from the Training Room that we were occupying.
I entered the room after noisily opening the sliding door and most of the talking voices primarily came from Kaihin Sogo High. Contrastingly, the Sobu High side was rather mute.
I gave my greeting and after I put my bag down, I suddenly noticed. Isshiki who I thought had already gone ahead was nowhere to be seen.
Upon asking, the vice president sitting nearby had a puzzled face and spoke.
“She’s not here yet… She wasn’t with you?”
I shook my head in response and the vice president questioned the other members.
“Did anyone hear anything from her?”
“I sent her a mail just in case, but…”
Judging from how she was speaking to the vice president, this girl was probably a first year. She was probably either the secretary or the treasurer. With glasses and braids, she was wearing her uniform as stated by the school regulations and while she looked like the docile type, she seemed hesitant somehow.
Although she was a first year like Isshiki, it looked like she wasn’t as amiable as you’d expect. I had yet to see her actually talk and even just now, she had settled for contacting Isshiki with just a mail. Whether it was by mail or by phone, there must’ve been a boundary line somewhere, huh? How complicated…
As the girl looked at me and the vice president reservedly in alteration, she sighed as she spoke.
“She may be still at her club.”
When she mentioned that, I realized that possibility. Before Isshiki became the student council president, she was the manager of the soccer club. That hadn’t changed even now.
If Isshiki was doing the same thing as I did where I’d show up to club, then that meant she may not have been able to check her cellphone. In that case, it may be faster to go get her directly.
“I’ll go get her.”
“Ah, yeah. Thanks.”
The vice president saw me off as I left the Training Room.
From there, I retraced my route back through the path that I just arrived from.
With my bike, it was at best only a few minutes to get to school. It wasn’t that time consuming. With the bike making a squealing sound as I pedaled on it, I hurried to campus.
On the moderately wide campus were the baseball club, soccer club, rugby club, and track and field club mixed together practicing diligently like they always did.
Even though the sun was setting, the recognizable group of people was quite bright. I parked my bike near the campus and headed for the group of soccer players hanging around.
As I watched them from afar, the soccer team was split into two teams and seemed to have been playing a mini game.
Isshiki wasn’t there, but another girl manager (cute) was and in her hands were a stopwatch and a whistle. She blew on the whistle.
When she did, the players relaxed and walked this way to the side of the school building. Apparently, it was their break time and they were about to rehydrate themselves with their water bottles that they left here.
In that group, I spotted Tobe. Also noticing me, he lightly raised his hand and came my way. What’s with you? If you do something like that, people will think we’re friends. Stop it.
“Oooh, what do ya know? Ain’t it Hikitani-kun? What’s up?”
Tobe talked to me in a really friendly manner. I wasn’t sure if he was an idiot or whatever, but why was this guy always so over familiar…? It’s not like he’s a bad guy, so it wasn’t too much of a big deal.
Well, good timing. I guess I’ll ask Tobe.
“Is Isshiki here?”
“Irohasu? Irohasu is… huh? Not here, huh? Hayato-kuun, do ya know where Irohasu is?”
Tobe looked around for Isshiki, but noticing that she wasn’t here, called out in a loud voice to Hayama who was nearby.
Hayama took a towel from the manager (cute), used it to wipe off his sweat, and walked in our direction. Wow, girl managers seriously did give you a towel. If that happened to me, I’d just get needlessly sweaty from getting too nervous.
“Iroha said she had something to do so she left early.”
Hayama answered Tobe and Tobe looked at me.
“There ya go, Hikitani-kun.”
“I see. My bad, thanks. See you.”
It looked like we slipped past each other somewhere. That was a waste of time. I gripped on the handles of my bike, ready to go back quickly and said my thanks to the two.
“Aah, no worries man, no worries.”
Tobe lightly shook his hands and said so with a bright smile. But next to him with a cold expression was Hayama.
“Tobe, about the team distribution for the next mini game, take it over for me.”
“Eh? Aah, aye, aye.”
Tobe was suddenly given instructions and he jogged to the fields. Somehow, it looked like he was driven away from here.
It wouldn’t be a good idea to stay here for too long as well. I pushed my bike so I could return to the community center as fast as possible. There, a voice called out to me beyond my back.
“…Do you have a second?”
When I turned around, there was a guy there.
Hayama pulled off the towel wrapped around his neck and as he gently folded it, he spoke.
“Sounds like a lot of trouble.”
I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. I tilted my head, questioning what he meant. Judging from what my expression was like, Hayama made a smile.
“You’re doing a lot of things after getting asked for help by the student council right? Take care of Iroha.”
“What, so you knew?”
I thought for sure that Isshiki kept silent about this incident this time from Hayama.
Hayama made a bitter smile.
“Yeah. She didn’t say anything specific about what she was doing, but she seemed quite busy.”
I see. So this was the complex maiden circuit1 where she wanted to avoid being a bother while making sure what they were doing was known to others. I totally get it. No, I don’t.
What I didn’t get was Hayama’s attitude.
“Yeah? So if you knew about it, then you should help her out.”
In the first place, Hayama’s relationship with Isshiki was a lot deeper than mine. Isshiki did say the reason why she didn’t ask for Hayama’s help, but if it was the Hayama I imagined, then if he noticed that she was busy, he would’ve mentioned a word or two about lending a hand.
But when Hayama narrowed his eyes and wore a smile on his face, he said something surprising.
“It’s not like she asked me. The one who she asked was you.”
“She’s just using me as much as she can.”
“If you’re asked, you don’t really refuse after all.”
A tone that gently reverberated as if it sounded somehow impressed. But although it may have sounded pleasant to my ears, it also dripped with sarcasm to me. Because of that, my speaking became sharp.
“That’s the kind of club it is. There isn’t any particular reason to refuse. Unlike you, I have free time after all.”
“Is that it?”
“…What’re you trying to say?”
His probing question made me irritated.
Although I returned the question, Hayama didn’t answer with his bitter smile keeping its shape. For how quiet it was, I could hear the loud voices of the other clubs. Even so, the spot that Hayama and I were standing at made it feel like that noise was far away.
The silence stung my ears so I tried to fill it by speaking up.
“…In the first place, you can’t refuse either. It’s not like it’d be because of club too.”
“I wonder about that…”
Hayama turned his face away from me and looked west of the sky.
The lingering clouds were beginning to be dyed in red.
Hayama looked like he was thinking of something as he sealed his mouth shut and returned his gaze to me. Although the evening sun was beginning to reflect on his face, there was a mysteriously lack of warmth to it.
“…I’m not as nice of a guy as you make me out to be.”
He then said that with a provoking tone. His cold penetrating eyes glared at me in place quietly.
My voice wouldn’t come out.
It was a tone that was layered with a severity despite being so calm. It felt like I had heard that at some point during summer vacation. In the darkness of that night, did he make this very same expression back then?
I stood there without answering and so did Hayama who didn’t say anything further.
The only thing we exchanged were our gazes, with not a single other thing being passed between us. Time stopped just like that. Only the incessant voices of the people in their club activities continued which also served to indicate the passage of time.
Amongst those voices was a considerably loud one that could be heard.
“I’ll be right there.”
Tobe’s loud voice brought Hayama back to his senses and he replied to Tobe who was inside the court. He then lightly raised his hand to me and began walking.
“…Yeah, sorry for bothering you.”
Not bothering to see Hayama off in the distance, I straddled onto my bike. Unconsciously, the feet that I kicked out with had a lot of strength into it.
The revolting feelings towards that attitude that tried to dig for the truth and the following sense of discomfort that I had overlooked something. Both of those planted themselves in the bottom of my stomach to the point that it made me sick.
I felt this lingering feeling of discontent in regards to Hayama’s attitude
Did I mistake something in regards to how I recognized Hayama Hayato?
I thought he was a good guy. But I also realize that he wasn’t just anybody. That heartless expression he would show for the purpose of having everyone get along. I thought that was the kind of guy Hayama Hayato was.
However, that smile was slightly different. On one side, it was a gentle and kind smile, essentially perfect. But it was exactly because of this flawless perfection that there wasn’t a limit to its coldness.
It was something similar to what I had seen before.
As I searched for that answer, while I was pedaling my bike, I had made it to the community center. I locked my bike and just as I was about to go inside, Isshiki had just exited the slightly opposite convenience store. The way she would walk with her head hanging looked awfully slow.
When I called out to her, Isshiki raised her head. Noticing me, she shuffled the convenience store bags to two hands and let out a small sigh. She then showed a sweet smile.
“Ah, I’m sorry. Did I make you wait a bit?”
“If anything, I had to go look for you.”
“This is where you’re supposed to say ‘I didn’t wait at all since I just got here too’, isn’t it…?”
Isshiki spoke in a discontent tone as she pouted and I stretched out my hands wordlessly. Seeing that, Isshiki made a sudden smile. The way she smiled looked like she was letting out a small sigh.
“…Today’s not that heavy so it’s okay.”
Isshiki answered briefly. True, the content of the bags didn’t look like a lot. But the hands holding those bags looked heavier than usual.
“We’re quite late, so we should hurry on.”
After saying that, Isshiki entered the community center. I followed after her.
Isshiki’s shoulders from behind looked slightly dropped compared to normal and her back was slumped over dully.
Aah, the actual person’s motivation had dropped, huh…? As cheeky as she was, she was surprisingly not very resilient.
That’s reasonable. She was probably tired of things since both the event itself and the internal affairs of the student council weren’t very established. For a first year girl in high school, this was a rather heavy situation for her.
But one reason that contributed to that kind of environment was me. There weren’t very many things I could do, but even so, I’ll do what I can to at least provide support.
Although presently, the only thing I could really do was hold those convenience store bags.
× × ×
Would something good come out the longer you take on it?
I think as a matter of fact, that question was a never-ending proposal to the people who create things.
“There’s still some left. It should still be okay. Just a little bit more and I can do it…” It was a common occurrence for everything to collapse on top of itself as those thoughts occupied your head. For just the spare time you had left, you would slack off, cut corners, and take things lightly. That’s just how people were. Composure? Just what are you talking about? This is what you call being careless!2
Even now, the situation had blown up in my face while I was saying “it can still be saved, it can still be saved, Madgascar!”3
Today, we were set to meet with the elementary students from the nearby school according to what Kaihin Sogo High had proposed the other day. Not a single detail had been settled on with only the scale swelling up to bigger proportions.
“Let’s decide on things together from here on! I want you to put yourself out there and tell us anything!”
The excessively refreshing Tamanawa greeted the elementary students in that contagious way.
When he did, the elementary students all answered “we look forward to working with you” in unison with their disorderly voices.
As expected, not the entire body of elementary students was participating as only a few were selected, possibly from something like an elementary student council.
Their number was roughly just about ten.
And in that group, I spotted a familiar looking little girl.
Because she looked considerably more mature than the surrounding kids, a single glance was enough to know. With long, sleek black hair, she was somehow exuding a cold exterior.
Tsurumi Rumi was alone, no different from that time during summer break.
When I stared at her fixedly, she looked like she noticed me too as she narrowed her eyes. She averted her gaze and looked at the floor.
That behavior of hers contrasted with the frolicking elementary kids around her and the memories of what I did to her that time surfaced.
It was in Chiba Village during the summer break. I destroyed the human relationships that enclosed Tsurumi Rumi at the school camping trip those girls attended. That also involved pushing the roles of being a villain onto Hayama and the others.
And the result was right before my eyes.
I didn’t know if that was correct or wrong. Whether she was saved from what resulted was something only she could decide.
“Senpai, what’s wrong?”
When I turned around to the voice, Isshiki was making a curious face.
After I answered shortly, I looked again at Rumi and the others.
It looked like the other girls in that group with her at that camping trip weren’t here as well. In other words, I was completely in the dark as to how her present relationship with others was faring. Trying to think any further was just guesswork. In that case, I’ll just stop there.
Right now, there were other things to think about. And that would be how to deal with these elementary students at the present moment.
Even though we met with the elementary students, there weren’t any particular jobs we could assign to them.
There were also teachers here as well, likely acting as their supervisor, but it looked like they were planning to leave the plans to us high school students. The initial brief greeting from Tamanawa seemed to have won them over considerably.
And speaking of Tamanawa, after his speech, he came up to us and made a refreshing smile.
“Okay, can I leave handling them to you?”
Call them only to leave them… Even if you tell us to do that, the only thing we could do was chat because we had yet to decide on a single thing. On top of that, we couldn’t keep the elementary students out very late. The amount of time to work was limited. Something like “frankly, even if we kept them here…” was the situation.
In response to Tamanawa’s request, even Isshiki made a difficult face.
Still, the fact that he had already asked made it too late for her to say “sorry, can’t do it after all”. I wasn’t sure what Tamanawa may have mentioned in the negotiations, but leaving it to them made our side obligated to them. Being unable to shut down his opinion during the brainstorm was a painful misstep.
If we were to have a dispute here, the impressions of our two schools, the elementary school, and the plan which was agreed upon by the various institutions would deteriorate. In addition to that, we were already in a deadlock as it was and getting in a dispute would only hype it even further.
If they stood up, then we’d stand down… It was far from being in a bind, every single one of them were witches, witches4!
If we didn’t know what we were supposed to do, then that would be true of the elementary students as well. Although they were brought here, they huddled in a group looking unsure of what they were supposed to do.
But there was one who stuck out like a sore thumb even within that group.
There wasn’t a need to confirm who it was because it was Rumi.
Even when the other kids would talk secretly about this and that, she would stand there without joining in.
The elementary students took sneak glances at us and began to whisper into each other’s ears.
“Should we ask them what we’re going to be doing?”
“Okay… How many should we play?”
“Wait. First is rock?”
As they continued to talk, they seemed to have forgotten that it was a secretive chat as their voices grew loud enough for us to hear.
There was something like that, you know? The culture where you tried to decide on anything with a game of rock-paper-scissors. It’s similar to that black and white mind duel where you dueled for anything5. And so, loners who played alone and came out the winner would end up blurting out “okay, winner has to do it~!”. In that case, you should’ve just decided with the majority, jeez. That way, you could just give up. My elementary self was super pathetic.
Well, stories about me didn’t matter here. When I looked at the elementary students wondering what they were doing, there was a surprising result.
She probably listened to their exchange nearby. Rumi made a small glance and said so. She wasn’t particularly worked up about it, but her calm demeanor seemed to appear overbearing to the other kids. The kids saw Rumi off as they spoke with an unconfident, pressured voice.
Rumi didn’t show a response to their feeble voices as she continued walking to our front. Of course, she seemed to look hesitant asking me, so she called out to the vice president nearby.
“What should I do?”
Despite Rumi’s age, she asked with a rather calm attitude which caused the vice president to respond in a hurry.
The vice president worried about how he should answer and he shot me a look.
“What to do?”
“Don’t ask me…”
After saying that, the vice president looked at Isshiki. Considering the systematic flow of assigning roles, the first thing to do was to check with Isshiki.
He called for Isshiki who was near Tamanawa to come over. Isshiki gently excused herself from Tamanawa and jogged back.
“What should we do about assigning jobs to the elementary students?”
When he asked her, Isshiki lightly crossed her arms and tilted her head in contemplation.
“Uuumm… We still haven’t decided on anything yet, right…? Wouldn’t it be better to confirm it with them before anything else…?”
Judging from how Tamanawa and the others were, it’d be something along the lines of “you’re asking now?” Since we were tasked with dealing with them, we had to think for ourselves.
“For the time being, I suppose things that will be necessary but won’t be an obstruction. Along the lines of decorating or making the tree would work. And maybe buying the material too…”
“…I suppose so. Okay, then let’s go with that.”
Isshiki nodded her head and said. She directed the explanation to the elementary students along with Rumi.
That workload for the time being should suffice. But we had to think about what to do in the future. Considering we’re in the situation where we clueless about what to do, we had to think even further. We had to finalize the skeletal structure of the event, otherwise we’d just become a disorderly mob wasting time.
I left the handling of the elementary students to Isshiki and went to Tamanawa. Originally, this was what Isshiki should be doing, but there was something called affinity to people. Because of their age difference, Isshiki probably couldn’t be frank with him. In that case, that’s where I should follow through for her.
I approached Tamanawa who was having a friendly chat with his group of friends and I lightly coughed. Tamanawa then noticed and turned around.
“What is it?”
Tamanawa asked with a refreshing smile. I wasn’t very good with these types of people who leaked this good natured aura. Somehow, a recognizable face would flicker by. Because I jumped ahead of my awareness of being terrible with these people, the way I spoke sounded crude.
“Um, even with all these helping hands, if we don’t have anything decided, we can’t really do anything…”
“Okay, then let’s all think this through together.”
Even I was completely speechless to his next-to-instant reply.
“All of us you say… If we just have a vague discussion with each other, we’re never going to decide on anything. For now, we should try to break things down and it’d be better to start considering things from.”
“But wouldn’t that just narrow our outlook? I think we should all explore for a solution together.”
Tamanawa interrupted me without listening to me until the very end. Still, if I were to back down here, everything would repeat itself. Again, I tried to give a rebuttal from a different direction.
“No, but the time…”
“That’s right. We should think about how to deal with that together too.”
That’s like working overtime for the sake of holding a conference to get rid of overtime, wasn’t it? I thought about how I should get it across to him while scratching my head and Tamanawa made a deliberate kind smile as if he noticed my impatience.
“I understand you’re in a hurry, but let’s try our best together and COVER each other.”
Tamanawa made slightly exaggerated gestures and patted me on the shoulders as if trying to encourage me. He wasn’t using all that much strength, but my shoulders still just dropped.
It looked like it would be pointless regardless of what I had said.
I may be repeating myself, but there was something called affinity to people. That being said, I felt that Tamanawa and I had the worst possible affinity. But it was likely that Tamanawa wasn’t fully to blame.
True enough. There were plenty of times where incorporating the opinions and point of views of many people, the things that could be created would turn out remarkable. It may just be because the way I did things was just different.
To cooperate with people, to rely on someone, those were things that took time. Because of my lack of experience in that department, that may have been why I couldn’t understand Tamanawa’s way of doing things.
I was here after committing many mistakes. I could have been mistaken about something this time too.
“…I got it. But we should probably hold that conference soon.”
After saying that, I forcibly swallowed my own doubt.
“Okay, let’s hold the conference right away then.”
Tamanawa ended our conversation, called out to the other Kaihin Sogo High students, and started up the conference.
× × ×
Today’s conference was being held to discuss the more specific details of the event.
“Up until now, we were able to settle on the GRAND DESIGN, but today, let’s have a DISCUSSION on the portions regarding CREATIVITY.”
Tamanawa took up the position akin to a moderator and opened up with a long-winded speech.
All of Kaihin Sogo High nodded in response.
One supervisor of the elementary students whom we had assigned the job of decorations and our side, Sobu High, participated in the conference.
To be going into a discussion of the specifics of the event, I suppose the conference itself was finally seeing some progress.
After confirming that there weren’t any objecting voices to his earlier proposal, Tamanawa began in a composed tone.
“Since we’re starting from ZERO BASE, everyone should feel free to say what they want.”
After that, the hands from the Kaihin Sogo side went up one by one.
“Doing something very Christmas-esque would be totally good.”
“I suppose we can’t really leave out the TRADITIONAL aspects of it though, huh?”
“But regarding the demands to us, it should be in line with high school students, right?”
The discussion was gradually becoming abstract again. Not good, the conference wasn’t going to be any different from the brainstorms we had so far at this rate.
As expected, Tamanawa seemed to have perceived this as well. After a nod, he addressed everyone.
“It has to be Christmas related, but something in line with us, I see. Like what kind of things for example?”
From there, opinions popped out one by one like a word association game.
“I feel like the STANDARD for a regional EVENT like this would be a CLASSIC Christmas CONCERT.”
“But it’d be good if we could cater to the young MINDS too. Like a BAND.”
“Wouldn’t JAZZ be more Christmas oriented?”
“Then we might as well just do a choir. We could borrow a PIPE ORGAN too.”
The members of Kaihin Sogo High had plenty of motivation as they aggressively shot out ideas. One person would propose something and another person would expand on the possibilities of that idea and then they would suggest a completely new opinion.
Orchestra, band, jazz concert, choir, dance, play, gospel, musical, closet drama, and so forth…
I had the job of recording the minutes too, so I made a memo of all of the raised opinions.
This trend wasn’t bad at all. Even those in our student council were raising their hands contributing several of their opinions. It looked like because the earlier conference had an atmosphere that was difficult to speak up in that kept them from actively throwing out their ideas.
I continued taking memos for a bit longer.
Did we exhaust all of our opinions? When I reviewed the enumerated list, I could see a small glimmer of hope. If we kept this pace, we might be able to finalize the details before the day was over.
Just as I had that thought Tamanawa blurted out something horrifying.
“Good. Now, let’s discuss all of them.”
What kind of joke was that? Was that some sort of Chibalian6 joke? I looked at Tamanawa’s face, but he looked extremely serious. In fact, his refreshing smile he made showed that he was enjoying the flow of the conference.
…By “all of them”, you mean every single opinion that came up? As in, check the feasible pros and cons of all of them one by one?
I had the feeling we definitely didn’t have that kind of time left. The Christmas event was only about a week away. Regardless of what we decided to go with, considering the time we would need to prepare, practice, and coordinate ourselves, we had to start the preparations right now or there would be trouble.
“Wouldn’t it be faster to choose one of them right now instead?”
I couldn’t restrain myself as I spoke out and Tamanawa closed his eyes and lightly shook his head.
“Rather than quickly shooting down opinions, we should be making something that incorporates everyone’s suggestions in a way that everyone would be satisfied with.”
“No, like I said…”
“We have things systematically close to each other, so I think we have plenty of room to do this together.”
Even with my attempt to refute him, Tamanawa said so without yielding.
Certainly, it’s just like Tamanawa said. One way of making things was to dig around for a unifying proposal.
However, was that really okay?
A scraping, unpleasant feeling of discomfort assaulted the interior of my stomach.
But as I was unable to think of any more rebuttals to Tamanawa, the conference continued on.
From there, the aspect of the conference once again changed from a little earlier.
“Why don’t we consolidate the music and make a Christmas CONCERT with various GENRES?”
“So if we looked at it from there, then wouldn’t music and a MUSICAL work out pretty well?”
“Why don’t we just do all of it and make it into a movie?”
It looked like Kaihin Sogo High’s objective, as per Tamanawa’s words, was to come up with a unifying proposal. The bulk of the discussion shifted in the direction of how they would go about making all of their ideas a reality.
Tossing out ideas itself was good. Stimulating the conference was something that should be welcomed.
I didn’t mind if a formal brainstorm was chosen for the sake of presenting many ideas.
But in the brainstorm and conference we were holding where nobody’s ideas were rejected, there was no foreseeable conclusion in sight.
The conference I thought was proceeding on smoothly was beginning to look nonsensical.
When I noticed, my hands recording the minutes had stopped. I loosely let my hands hang under the desk and sat there in silence watching the conference.
The expression that I had was completely different from those who were energetically involved in the discussion.
They had vivid and bright smiles floating on their faces.
That was when I noticed.
They were all enjoying this moment. That’s to say, they were enjoying this exchange between each other.
What they wanted wasn’t the very idea of volunteer service, but the self-acknowledgement of them doing these activities.
It’s not that they wanted to do work. They just wanted to be immersed with the feeling of working. They just wanted to feel like they were actually doing it.
And then, they would feel like they did everything that they could, where ultimately, everything had turned into nothing.
────Aah, it really irritated me how that was exactly like someone out there and how it seemed like he was showing off his past mistakes.
He thought he had accomplished something, but in fact, he really didn’t accomplish anything at all.
Even though he couldn’t see anything at all.
× × ×
Ultimately, even with the time just about nearing the end, the conference didn’t end and the conclusion was deferred to another day.
For the time being, the closest thing to a conclusion was that we all scrutinized the practicality of every opinion and with that, we would talk it over again and called it a day.
The elementary students had already gone home quite a while ago. We, who stayed behind, arranged our preparations to go home as well and left one by one.
I parted from Isshiki and the other student council members and when I pedaled my bike from the community center, it hit me.
I’m hungry… Since I was out of it the entire time during the conference, I ended up forgetting to eat the snacks.
There’d be dinner if I just went home, but I couldn’t get my empty stomach off my mind. It should be okay to eat just a little… I stopped my bike for a moment and sent Komachi a brief mail like a telegram with the message “don’t need food today”.
I then took into consideration my current location and the status of my stomach and thought about the best thing to eat. They say that hunger was the ultimate spice, but that’s wrong. For me, the ultimate spice was someone treating me. But, well, since I was alone, there was no way anyone would treat me. I also had to keep in mind the condition of my wallet as well.
So that meant… ramen, yeah.
Once I decided, I quickly got into motion.
As I hummed a variant of the Nausicaa theme, lanlan ♪lanlalalaramen ♪7, I cheerfully pedaled my bike down the road.
I crossed the overpass and arrived at the front of Inage Station. If I go past the roundabout in front of the station, the shopping district where an array of food and drink stores, arcades, bowling alleys and karaoke would come into view. If I made a left turn at the lights ahead for a little longer, I would arrive at my destination.
I waited for the traffic light to turn from red to green.
And there, I spotted an unexpected individual.
Over his Sobu High jersey was a windbreaker and around his neck was a fluffy muffler. It was Totsuka.
Totsuka looked like he noticed me as well. As he readjusted the tennis bag on his back that looked somewhat heavy, he waved his hands at me.
When the lights changed, he looked to his left and his right before running over.
Out came together with the voice that called my name was Totsuka’s white breath.
Surprised to coincidentally meet him in the middle of town like this, I responded by lightly raising my hand.
“Uh huh, yo!”
Totsuka slightly raised his hand back with a bashful smile as if the earlier crude greeting was embarrassing. Aaah, I feel healed…
It wasn’t very often I had the chance to meet Totsuka outside of school. Then again, I never go out in the first place, so for us to be meeting like this made me totally think there were miracles and magic.
Well, there was no such thing as miracles or magic, such was this world. So, why was Totsuka here?
“What are you doing at a place like this?”
When I asked him, Totsuka squeezed his tennis bag and raised it to show it.
“I’m on my way back from school.”
Speaking of which, not only was Totsuka in the tennis club, he was also enrolled in the tennis school. And so that school was somewhat close to here, I think… Alright, from now on, let’s hang around here at this time of the day for no reason. Wait, but if we end up meeting a lot, it’d definitely be creepy so let’s keep it to once a week.
As I was wholeheartedly making my weekly schedule, Totsuka looked curiously at me, still riding on the bike.
“You too, Hachiman, what’s up? Your house isn’t this way, right?”
“Aah, I just thought I’d grab something to eat.”
“So that’s how it is.”
When I answered, Totsuka nodded convincingly and paused for a bit as if thinking. He then slightly tilted his head and looked at me with upturned eyes shyly.
“…Can I go with you too?”
My body reflexively stiffened up to those unexpected words. I ended up letting out a rather idiotic voice.
During that time, Totsuka was pressing against the muffler around his collar and anxiously twisted his body as he waited for my answer.
“Ah, yeah. Of course.”
When I said, Totsuka let out a sigh that seemed close to being relieved. He then made an elastic, tender smile.
“Yay. So, what to eat, huh?”
“Anything’s fine with me.”
After saying that, I realized that this correspondence was terrible. “Anything’s fine” was no good when you were dealing with girls. By the way, I heard that, if the guys said something specific like “ramen” or “udon”, they’d make a really disgusted face. In other words, when the girls asked you “what do you want to eat?”, you had to answer with something that they may want to eat. What’s with that impossible game? Were girls an esper training facility?
But Totsuka was a guy, so it was okay.
Totsuka blinked incessantly and asked me.
“Hachiman, didn’t you already decide what to eat?”
See, that’s actually… you! I was close to spouting out a line that the Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood would say, but there was no way I could. I mean, I am human after all…8
“Not at all, I just kind of came over here, that’s all. That’s why, anything’s fine.”
I said so with a deliberate gentleman’s tone.
Although I was in the mood for ramen, the reason was because of process of elimination. Since I often ate by myself, I unconsciously chose a seat by the counter. There weren’t any issues when the store wasn’t crowded but to take a table when I was alone made me feel apologetic.
Besides, even if it wasn’t ramen, being able to eat with Totsuka would make anything taste good. I said earlier that getting treated was the ultimate spice, but I’ll take that back. The ultimate spice had to be Totsuka. If Momoya9 started selling using “it’s Totsuka”, that’d be bad. It wouldn’t be a problem with goods being bought out as it’d be an issue with being acquired by a corporation.
As we talked about what to eat, Totsuka clapped his hands.
“Ah. Then how about yakiniku?”
Hey, hey, they tend to say stuff about a guy and woman eating yakiniku together10, but how would that work if it were two guys eating together…?
As I thought about it, Totsuka looked like he came up with something and groaned as he tilted his head in contemplation.
“But yakiniku’s a little expensive, huh?”
“That’s right. It’s as they say, it eats up your wallet.”
“That’s Hachiman for you, huh…”
He let out a troubled laugh.
Still, yakiniku, huh…
If you wanted to eat meat, then there should’ve been other places… As I looked around, the fast food chain, First Kitchen came into view. Because of its well-placed position immediately from the station, it was a store used often by the students in this area. Outside of the store was a hanging banner with the words “yakiniku galbi wrap” on it.
“Why don’t we go over there?”
When I pointed it out, Totsuka’s eyes sparkled.
“Yeah, that might be good!”
After getting Totsuka’s approval, we entered the First Kitchen near the station. Still, what was with the abbreviation of First Kitchen11 anyway? It felt kind of mortifying for some reason.
The warm interior of the store which suddenly changed from outside with the cold blowing winds was crowded. It seemed like people on their way back from prep school and work had stopped by.
When we lined up before the registers, Totsuka let out a small sigh. His cheeks were slightly blushed.
“The heating inside’s pretty strong, huh?”
As he said that, Totsuka grabbed his muffler. His clothes rustled as he unfastened the muffler around his neck and his nape looked unusually captivating. I started to blush myself once I caught a glimpse of that.
How odd. How very odd. Totsuka’s a guy. The reason why I turned red right now was because of the heating or possibility because I was starting to get sick. Calm down. Calm down and recite a haiku!
Could I be sick, hm? There’s no way I could be, right! Totally am, yep (sick).
…This was definitely a sickness. To be reciting a haiku in the first place meant I was already completely sick.
As I panicked internally while in line, it was finally our turn. Judging from the crowd, it’d be faster for the two of us to order at the same time than one by one.
I lined up next to Totsuka and we both took a glance at the menu.
When I did, Totsuka pointed at the yakiniku galbi wrap.
“Ah, Hachiman. Let’s go with this one.”
“Yeah. Then, we’ll get that.”
After paying the bill and getting our yakiniku galbi wrap, we went up to the second floor.
Fortunately, there were tables still open. We heaved ourselves into the seat and quickly went to eating. We first dug into the main component, the yakiniku galbi wrap.
I spontaneously screamed out “it’s deeeeeeeeeliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiciooooooooooooooouss!”12 while light spilled out from both my eyes and mouth as I traversed the vacuums of space. It wasn’t that exaggerated, but in light of what Totsuka had recommended, well, its taste was ordinarily good.
While it was ordinarily good, I wasn’t really sure of the reason why Totsuka suggested this.
“…Still, why yakiniku?”
I ate out with Totsuka a few times before, but I recall him being a light eater. Also, if I were to choose, he definitely felt more like someone who would prefer vegetables over meat…
When I asked him, Totsuka embarrassingly spoke up.
“I thought it’d be good for when you were tired so…”
Ha, I see. He did just come from some exercise, so he was probably a little hungry. So it’s something like protein intake after training or so. Probably.
Or so I explained to myself arbitrarily, but Totsuka added with a small voice.
“It’s because you’ve been kind of like that recently, Hachiman…”
I was aware of my fatigue. However, that had more to do with my mental state. That’s why I told him with a face as if it wasn’t anything and Totsuka lightly shook his head.
His eating hands had stopped and Totsuka timidly looked up at my face.
“Did something, happen?”
Both Totsuka’s eyes and voice were kind. It’s just that Totsuka’s gaze looked more sincere than his normal self and that earnestness pressured me.
Before answering, I sipped my oolong tea. If I didn’t do that, I felt like my voice would come out dry instead.
“…Not really. Nooothing at all.”
Thanks to swallowing various things, my voice had come out a lot smoother than I thought. My tone was brighter than usual and it was likely I had mixed in a smile meant to keep Totsuka from needlessly worrying any further.
However, Totsuka’s expression looked slightly lonely in response to my smile.
“…I see. I guess Hachiman won’t really say anything, huh?”
I didn’t know what Totsuka’s expression was like with his down cast face and his lowered shoulders. But his following voice sounded depressed.
“If it’s Zaimokuza, I wonder if he knows about it…?”
“No, that guy doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
When he suddenly brought up an unrelated name, I was a little surprised. But inside of Totsuka, there seemed to be a connection as he shook his head and raised his face.
“But you talked with Zaimokuza before.”
When he said “before”, I finally realized what he was talking about.
During that student council election, the one person I consulted with outside of my family, Komachi, was Zaimokuza. After that, the number of people who cooperated with me increased due to Komachi’s arrangements, but the one person who I personally talked to was just Zaimokuza alone. But it’s not like I intended that to mean anything special in particular. It was only a matter of having met with Zaimokuza first and since he was easy to talk to, I didn’t have to hesitate to get his cooperation.
It looked like Totsuka took it in a different way.
“I just thought that was kind of nice. I’m just really jealous you could talk to him about things like that or something…”
Totsuka spoke awkwardly and slowly, word by word. The way he had phrased it made it sound like that behavior was something to be commended for.
But that’s wrong. That was definitely not something as beautiful as Totsuka made it out to be. I thought it was a behavior that was exceedingly self-righteous and selfish that made use of the kindness of others simply to satisfy my own self-interest.
Totsuka didn’t know anything about that.
That’s why he was giving me these warm words even now.
“I don’t think I’ll be of any use, but…”
I could see Totsuka squeezing his jersey under the desk. His thin shoulders were slightly trembling. I didn’t want him to worry any more than he needed to.
I worried about how I should smooth things over and as I scratched my head, I spoke in clusters.
“It’s nothing like that. Really, it’s not a big deal. It was just something Isshiki asked of me, so I was just a bit busy with it… For the most part, I was the one who pushed the role of president onto her so, well, so that’s part of it. That’s all.”
I tried to summarize with the straightforward truth while not voicing anything other than that. Thanks to that, I stumbled over most of my words.
But Totsuka raised his face as if those words were better off actually being said. And as if trying to ascertain the truth, he looked at me with honest eyes.
“Yeah. That’s why you don’t need to worry.”
If I spent just even a little bit longer thinking, I had the feeling I would’ve said something else. That’s why I answered immediately.
He let out a relieved sigh and Totsuka reached for his coffee. Even after a sip, his hands didn’t let go of the cup. He squeezed the cup as if warming the palms of his hands and murmured.
“Hachiman, you’re really cool after all.”
My surprise was probably reflected on my face. Totsuka who looked at my face was taken aback.
“I-I don’t mean it in a weird way!”
Totsuka shook both his hands in a panic and denied it. His face was completely red and as he fiddled with his hair, he started off with “um” before speaking up.
“That is, it’s kind of hard to say but… Even when it’s painful or hard, you keep trying your best without complaining. I just think, that’s really, cool…”
When he explained it, I got needlessly self-conscious. I put my chin in my hands and looked away. Unintentionally, my speaking ended up sounding curt.
“…That ain’t it, really. I’m voicing my complaints, grudges too.”
“Ahaha, that’s true.”
Totsuka smiled in relief. With that kind smile, he spoke in a reserved, small voice.
“…But, just let me know if you’re in trouble, okay?”
He asked one last time for measure and I nodded without a word. It’s exactly because of how earnest he asked that I thought I shouldn’t put it into words so easily. To Totsuka who saw trust and cooperation as something beautiful, then that was even more so.
When I agreed, Totsuka nodded back.
After that, an odd silence was born. Totsuka looked embarrassed somehow and was facing downwards.
I could understand from experience that the mood was more relaxed compared to earlier and I nonchalantly spoke.
“Want to eat something sweet?”
“Ah, that sounds good. Like dessert.”
Totsuka quickly raised his face and agreed.
“Okay, I’ll go buy something. Wait a bit.”
I stood up without waiting for a positive or negative answer from Totsuka.
When I went down, the registers were packed as usual. It looked like it would take a bit before it was my turn.
With the frequent of outgoing and incoming people people, the heating near the registers was rather strong. It felt like my head was becoming hazy so I decided to go outside for a little bit.
The December nights were cold, but the chilly sensation felt good on my burning face. Since I came out without my coat and muffler, the dry wind crept in through the back of my neck. My body quickly shrank.
As I stood there alone shivering on the street corner, a single person passing shot an odd look at me. The others paid me no attention.
In that instant, the words Totsuka said earlier came to mind.
It was nothing like that. I’m sure I was just being stubborn, simply just trying to keep up my front.
I would act obstinate all so I didn’t betray the ideal self I established inside myself.
Even now, the repulsive monster of reason–the aggravating monster of self-consciousness–was lurking in this self.
Perhaps I might’ve been able to unequivocally accept Totsuka’s words if I were aware of that monster.
But Yuigahama’s forced smile, Isshiki’s occasionally dejected expression, Tsurumi Rumi’s solitary figure, and above all else, Yukinoshita’s peaceful, yet resigned smile made me ask myself once more.
Is that really right?
I let out a small sigh and looked up to the starless night sky. Filling the visible sky illuminated by the city glow were clouds.
- Saber Marionette J ↩
- Samurai X. A quote from Shishio Makoto. ↩
- Video – The skit is about two guys who get shipwrecked at a snow mountain. One guy thinks they won’t be saved so he goes to sleep instead. The other guy starts screaming, we can still be saved, we can still be saved, and then says Madagascar and finds it on the globe. The joke stems from the similar pronunciation of “we can still be saved” which is “madatasukaru” and “Madagascar” is pronounced “madagasukaru”. ↩
- Video – A line from this song. The original line is every single one of them were sparkling maidens! ↩
- Yuigoh ZEXAL. Referring to the duel between Astral and Number 96 who are white and black respectively. ↩
- Chiba plus Italian ↩
- Video ↩
- Kinnikuman – A line spoken by Geronimo. ↩
- Momoya ↩
- It’s a sexual innuendo where eating meat gave the image of having carnal desires in Japanese culture. The original line would be “A guy and woman eating yakiniku together are having sex.” ↩
- First Kitchen is pronounced as “fakkin” in Japanese. You should be able to solve this. ↩
- Mister Ajikko ↩