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My introverted facade remained unchanged. The long hours of class time passed by sluggishly. I was a loner everyday just as the sky was always blue.
As for Tachibana Karen… It was as I had expected. We had not exchanged a single word so far today. Our eyes had not even met, let alone speaking to each other. I was focused on the study guide in front of me, whereas she had many people taking up her attention.
Wait, no no, why did I mention her name? Obviously things would be the same. This made no sense whatsoever.
The only difference was that the sixth period on Friday was an extended homeroom. Referred to as class activities during elementary and middle school, it was generally not worth caring about. For example, this was when the class committee appointed new members. Nobody wanted to run for candidacy for about, apart from a few people.
However, it was at times like this when loners were the strongest. Since we were used to staying quiet, we could withstand the heavy silence. When it had stretched out long enough to be unbearable, the inner ring of students would begin to say, “You do it~!” while actively pushing the responsibility around. Although, from the beginning, outsiders like me were never dragged into these problems. Thanks to that, I was not a committee member for this term too, staying free from duties. I did it!
Even more trivial than that was the routine goal reflection sheet. This seemed to be a common practice for self-proclaimed progressive schools like ours. However, if you filled it out thoughtlessly, the teachers will scrutinise everything and make various complaints so you could not show unexpected negligence.
However, things like this did not trouble me. At times like this, being a bookworm was vital… Well, since I came in fourth place last time, then I should aim for the top of the grade in all subjects. The teachers would accept that. I should be finished with writing this soon, so I will continue self-studying like usual for the rest of the class.
For the most part, I was unrivalled. Putting the two together meant I had no duties and I was unrivalled. Too strong. In other words, it did not matter how low I fell since a loner bookworm like me was right at home during a long homeroom.
While I was immersed in my self-absorption…
“Hey, sit down you guys! We’ll decide on group arrangements for the excursion now.”
…Ugh. Group arrangements… Here we go…
Our homeroom teacher was Shiraishi Yuriko, a young teacher who had been in the role for less than five years. In saying that, you should not underestimate him for it. Tall with a dignified coldness, he was popular with both genders. Yet, when he raised his voice with such a sour expression, his threatening attitude was truly impressive. His military-like aura was already frightening. Let alone retorting, he would annihilate anyone who tried to open their mouth. A bamboo sword would suit him well.
As a matter of fact, there were constant rumours about his relentlessness. Dropping a condom in the hallway meant having to write a 40 page repentance essay. Kissing the in hallway was worth 70 pages. He was said to hinder the springtime of life, a buster of adolescence.
Well, I could not care less about it since it had nothing to do with me, so either way… When a teacher like that slammed his file down on the podium with a bang, the class fell silent within a split second.
“Alright. The excursion is approaching next week…”
Excursion? On top of that, next week…? I had not heard about this, oi.
“Listen up! From now on, you’ll be divided into mixed gender groups but sex is prohibited!! I’m watching. Those who break the rule will have a repentance essay waiting for them!”
In my bewilderment, the teacher’s voice drifted off into the distance. However, this was an expected pattern so with a “Now gather up with whoever you want,” the class suddenly began to bustle. It seemed like the teacher meant for us to decide on our own since we were already senior high school students. Since I was a senior high school student, I would have liked to decide by myself whether or not to go on an excursion…
Yet, that was that. I, how did I deal with situations like this up until now…? Given that this situation would have happened often enough, I was ashamed of myself for not creating a memo on solutions for dealing with this. Rather, was this not already a distinctive Ichijou=SUN matter? Even as a loner, I was the most incompetent within all incompetence, an absolute fool. (TN: Ichijou=SUN (イチジョウ＝サン) is a reference to a novel called Ninja Slayer illustrated by Yuki Yugo and scripted by Yoshiaki Tabata. The original line was “Was this not already a distinctive Mirrorshade=SUN matter?” (「もはやこれはミラーシェード=サンのケジメ案件では？」), referring to a ninja with invisibility powers who acts recklessly and hence, was always on the receiving end of a bad situation.)
While I was wallowing in self-hatred, my classmates were already shuffling the seats around. Out of the corner of my eyes for as far as I could see, it seemed like they were already dividing up into mixed gender groups of friends. Like this, I would definitely be the guy left behind in the end. It would be fine if I could simply say, “Let me join,” but if I was capable of doing that then I would not be a loner.
Eh, seriously what should I do… was what I was thinking when,
“Umm… You’re Ichijou-kun, right?”
Startled, I turned to the direction of the voice and realised that there was a male student standing in front of my seat with an abashed, wry smile on his face. He had short hair, defined brows, and a childish face with freckles spread across his nose. He was scratching the back of his head shyly.
I remembered this feeble face clearly but, crap… I could not recall his name. Noticing this, he said,
“Ahaha… You can’t remember, right? I’m Komatsu. Komatsu Rei. I’ve been sitting in the back all along.”
In the noisy classroom, his voice was quiet and lacked confidence.
“Excuse me… but um… we’re both loners… so… um.”
I shrugged my shoulders and tilted my chin, motioning towards the seat behind me, a silent indication of “Well, sit down then.” The owner of that seat had gone somewhere else anyway. Besides, this was a blessing. I had been saved by a courageous youth. If only I could have just half of Komatsu-kun’s strong mentality.
“It’s not rude at all. Speaking up clearly helps save time.”
However, I was afraid of my classmates. In this class, I had not known there was another loner besides me. The next time that something like this occurs, it should be my turn to act.
“Shiraishi-sensei, how many people in a group?”
“Weren’t you listening? Half male, half female, about five or six per group. Choose your own groups.”
“We have a heavy responsibility, huh…”
“Haha… that’s true.”
Like this, the two of us sat mostly in silence… Wait, half male and half female? In our classroom, the groups had always been divided by gender. Which means, we’re drawing lots? While I was thinking this, groups were already forming. Just what was going on? And then…
When I looked back on this later, I would realise that I had been completely off guard during this whole day. After all, I had thought that everything would go on as usual because I had honestly thought that. Such common sense was once again crushed by a voice outside of my field of vision.
“Excuse me, the two people over there? You, Ichijou-kun was it?”
Surprised, I already knew by the voice. As I turned around, the person that had spoken was who I expected it to be. It was Tachibana Karen with two people who appeared to be her friends, one on the left and the other on the right.
“We were left out you see? Let us join (laugh).”
~~~Tsk!! Saying you guys were left out, what an obvious lie! There was a deliberate smirk in Tachibana’s eyes. Well, in front of our classmates who knew nothing about our relationship, she did call me “Ichijou-kun”. Even so, she had definitely said it in a teasing tone. This girl.
Of course, her friends seemed unconvinced. One of them alternated her gaze between Komatsu-kun and I with a harsh, vacant expression. The other was smiling bitterly, almost apologetic. Such an uncomfortable atmosphere… It was so awkward that Komatsu-kun who was next to me had turned towards me with a frightened expression.
“Karen, won’t it be better to keep searching?”
“Ahaha… What should we do…?”
See, even they think that we would be incompatible. Hurry up and go somewhere else already, this is troublesome for both of us.
“It’s fine. All guys are similar, aren’t they?”
Saying it with a smile, this blonde woman. Speaking of which, I feel like our surroundings have become a little quiet… Those guys staring at us, do they not seem displeased? You guys are too conspicuous. Can you not bring the attention over here?
“You were Tachibana-san, was it…? No~ I think there are better guys suited for cheerful girls like you~, so…”
I sounded way too desperate! My voice broke into a hoarse falsetto halfway. However, it seemed like this weird girl only found it more interesting.
“Even if you say that, it looks like the other groups have already been made so there’s nothing we can do~”
At this, she barely managed to hold back her laughter as she continued,
“Well, it’s already decided. Take care of us (laugh).”
This was the first time that Tachibana and I had made contact in class. Even though I had managed to maintain my indifferent personality no matter what had happened up until now, this was a terrible interference. Thanks to Tachibana… it was my first time having so much attention on me in class all at once. Of course, I decided to interrogate her about this after school.
Next to the library window as usual was the tanned, blonde gyaru. Right now, the two of us could talk alone as much as we needed. The reason for that was if I came here after school, she would usually be here. Seriously, what is up with her?
“What were you planning earlier, B*tch?”
Tachibana exhaled slowly as she turned to the window. She leaned back casually with her long legs crossed over the backrest of the chair. It gave a slightly strange feeling… She was always so bubbly and noisy in the classroom.
“…It’s interesting. Being in the same group as a virgin.”
“All I did was tutor you a little. I don’t need your unnecessary consideration.”
“Iiidiot, it’s not like that. Should I say it’s because I want to be with you normally?”
“That’s such a lie…”
“Hmm? It’s not a lie, should I prove it?”
The blonde girl’s closed mouth curved into a cheerful smile as she placed an index finger on her lips. She turned her provocative gaze on me and my heart skipped a beat.
“Excursion, I’m really looking forward to it… ehehe. Bookworm. Virgin.”
It was not like I thought she was cute or anything. No, even though she did have the appearance of a beauty. Enough already, stop teasing. It would be much simpler if I was able to just say this.
On the other hand, were there really bad intentions behind her actions? Right now, I was unable to guess her motives, so I could not just flatly refuse. To simply believe and accept this though…
My face became expressionless and I replied,
“Hm… If it comes down to this, I’m good at feigning illness.”
I was a guy who could not be honest with my feelings. Although it came across as cold when I did this, it would lead to feelings of guilt if Tachibana Karen took such an approach.
At my reply, her expression changed into one of sadness. She seemed worried. Maybe apologetic.
“Being with me… Is it that hateful?”
“No, it’s not that…”
Tachibana came down from the desk and stood in front of me. She clutched my right arm tightly, her eyes hopelessly pleading for something. A feminine floral scent tickled my nose. Urk, stop, too close…
“I want to pull you into the midst of our class. I definitely won’t let you be a loser.”
“Uhh… I’m not really bothered about that to begin with.”
“I know. But the one who’s bothered about it is me. It’s my selfishness. It’s fun being with a loner like you. And a little sad.”
“It’s natural for there to be a loner. It’s not like I’m alone without a reason.”
“Didn’t you say it yesterday? Everyone will like you if they see your good side. So leave it to me. That’ll be okay, won’t it…”
Crap, I have to do something. When the request came from her, I was unable to refuse. It would be fine if you did not take care of it. Yet I could not say that until the very end… This was not good. In the end, I answered somewhat offhandedly with an annoyed expression.
“Do what you want… B*tch.”
“Yeah, leave it to me… Virgin ♪”
In any case, since it the weekend started tomorrow, I will be liberated from this feeling of unease in my chest. It was fortunate that I did not have a mobile phone so that she could not contact me. I say it way too much that I do not want to see her, but… honestly, I just wanted to rest my mind.
Just like that, the next day came.
Dark and dusty, my little sister’s room looked like it came from the end of the century, to say the least. On a large TV screen, a 3D character was dancing a complex choreography.
“Ha, school attendee with a sheltered upbringing! Come to your death! Fuhahahahaha!”
My little sister Keyaki was, well… energised. Overly spirited, the condition of her eyes and bed hair could not be better.
“You’ve been way too hyper since morning. Are you high? High blood pressure?”
“…I just opened a bag of salt tablets. I want to win.”
“You’re too reckless… Go drink some water, water! I’m waiting!”
“Hey! Aniki, you just want to get used to the controls!”
There was only one thing that we did on Saturdays. At least half of the day was designated to playing games with Keyaki. Especially this week, the popular “Crash Brothers” game was released, so it was inevitable that I would be playing as her opponent all night.
This 24-hour hardcore playing. Since it was insanely harsh on our bodies, I was worried that it would shorten our lives. Yet, did I hate this…? No way. I was secretly fired up.
On one hand was Keyaki who was a hardcore gamer, so it was normal for her to have dark circles under her eyes. On the other hand was me, a trashy small fry who went to school diligently. Naturally, the difference in our skill level was evident and no matter which game we played, I was often defeated by a large margin. We were equally matched only in sports like baseball or soccer, however, those were not things that my little sister would want to do in the first place. If it was about this popular title that had just been released though… she was also interested in it, and she was not familiar with the controls yet. In other words, this was my only chance at a precious victory. Of course I would be fired up.
By the way, according to urban legends, this game was apparently the number one most popular series for playing at a friend’s house. Regardless of who the opponent was, regularly playing against my little sister lead to a feeling of not wanting to lose. However…
“Hey hey, eat this rocket.”
“Ha, ineffective (laugh). Aniki has always been so predictable since ages ago.”
Haa… See, it’s just… My condition is not usually so bad… I could not think of a truly good excuse for my failure to move my fingertips rapidly, or judging the timing accurately. I thought about this during our break for lunch as I stuffed chocolate flavoured CalorieMate blocks into my mouth. It seemed like in this one week, too many things had happened… Given that I had done nothing but study, it was unlike me to worry through to the weekend. Whether I should be boasting about this or not, I usually forgot all problems after a night of sleep.
Regardless of how it should have been, that Tachibana girl was stuck in the back of my mind and I was unable to get her out. Most of the time I would not be aware of it, yet it was hard to deal with when she suddenly popped into my head. Every time this happened, I would desperately try to concentrate on studying because there was no other way out of it.
The first thing that I thought of would always be her happy, smiling face. And maybe that floral scent. Finally, the way she poked me as if in greeting, with that soft hand…
I realised that I was about to make a tremendous mistake. I dug my nails so deeply into the palm of my hand that I almost drew blood. Do you understand, virgin Ichijou Jun-kun? Tachibana Karen is simply amiable towards others. Furthermore, she was like that to everyone so all the boys around her misunderstood. That was why she as popular, that girl.
But seriously, what was up with her? About the excursion, what on earth did she want with me…?
At this, Keyaki came back up from downstairs, having finished eating. She looked at me, blinking her round eyes.
“Why are you holding a chocolate block in your mouth…?”
“Eh, ahh, this…”
I wondered… The only person that I could speak to relatively easily was my little sister, someone who did not conform with the highly efficient society. Which meant that she was the only one I could rely on and consult with. Well, she was a social recluse, though I could trust her. I even believed in her intelligence. So, I decided to try asking.
“Keyaki, you… This is an if. An if, okay? If… without any reason, a guy suddenly appears and gets along with you, how would you interpret it?”
Keyaki blinked her eyes again. Her expression shifted gradually as though she was looking at some strange object and she stared scornfully at me. It was just like she was saying, “You’re asking that to a hikineet like me… idiot Aniki?” (TN: Hikineet is a combination of hikikomori (a person who refuses to leave the house) and a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training).)
“You’re asking me that… crappy Aniki?”
“No, well, I thought you’d say that…”
It was mostly accurate except for the crappy bit. I am not crappy. I should teach her that later. However, it seemed like there was a little more to it from her scornful stare.
“What? An eraser situation? Picking up an eraser for the girl next to you and feeling like you guys were getting along, something like that?”
Although that was totally different from my situation, I was surprised by how accurate she was about the basic idea… Seeing my expression, Keyaki shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
“I don’t know what happened, but did you know? Pretty girls and expensive vases are like a set. They’ll be stolen away before you realise.”
“When something important is stolen, it’ll be too late right?”
My little sister smiled proudly and handed me the game controller.
“The only people you can really trust are family members, you know?”
About that, “Pretty girls and expensive vases are like a set,” huh… I understood this completely and was meekly convinced. As expected, to choose the path of a social recluse while young meant she was experienced in life. It did not matter which one of us was born first. Based on the skills in gaming, she was practically my older sister.
“Then, let’s continue?”
Will Tachibana come to the library again on Monday? What should I do about the excursion? There were various thoughts stuck in my mind, however… all of these troubles actually disappeared after about eighteen hours. The reason for that was because we had stayed up gaming peacefully through the chilly night, until both of us had caught a cold.
On Monday, I was forced to skip school. Since I had been big mouthed about being good at feigning sudden illness, it had actually happened in the end… Soon after, I had to pay the price. In fact, I was buried in serious nonsense next Saturday.
“Ugh… You’re terrible, Ichijou-kun.”
It was lunch break the next day. Our class’s other loner, in other words my fellow comrade Komatsu-kun, had come over to my seat with weepy eyes, yet I had not noticed it until he had done so. I was unconsciously thinking about unimportant things like how this boy’s freckles made his face look much younger. Having been completely spaced out, I did not know what had upset him until I thought it about it a little.
Since we had to cook for ourselves during excursions, it seemed like everyone had discussed this while I had been sick in bed at home. Which meant that this weak boy had been surrounded by three large-eyed gyarus during that.
“It’s too much! Leaving me alone in the middle of that!”
“…Well, I’m really sorry…”
Was that not already terrifying just from imagining it? The issue was not simply the combination of “a background character and a sociable girl”, it was more of a massive “one background character with three sociable girls” problem. Although it was not the worst thing in the world to have your voice sealed by the silent pressure, I would have wet my pants if I had been there. No, even before being extorted, I would be dumping out the contents of my wallet while saying, “Please forgive me with this. Have mercy, have mercy.” School castes were scary.
Although I had not skipped school deliberately, I ended up doing something really bad to Komatsu-kun. Besides, there were still things like the excursion in the future and I did not want to ruin my loner comrade’s spirit. I decided to apologise sincerely.
“Are you alright? How much did they take? About that, I should bear half of the burden.”
“They didn’t exactly take anything. It was just intensely awkward… The three of them were talking happily while I was fidgeting nearby.”
“Is that so, I see…”
Seems like my imagination was exaggerated. Well, there were no upper or lower limits in differences for people in a separate caste and they were like another race altogether, so I was prone to be imaginative when I let my mind wander. Particularly for those were sociable, I basically thought of them as people who “drank, gambled, and had sex”, yet they were surprisingly ordinary when talking to them face-to-face.
However, the opponents this time were Tachibana Karen and her pleasant friends. I was not judging a book by its cover or whatever, but I knew what kind of people they were. Given that the type who lived by making fun of others, there was no such thing as being too cautious with them. Even for Komatsu-kun, I had no idea how he would be treated from now on.
“So, that discussion… What exactly did you guys do?”
I asked him this nervously.
“…Since Ichijou-kun wasn’t here, they decided on various things.”
“Like making paella in a pot.”
Well well, it sounded like genuine cooking. For a female-oriented group, it was kind of trendy. Although I could not cook.
“So, Ichijou-kun is in charge of buying groceries.”
“Why am I supposed to know what the ingredients of paella are…”
“They said, “That loner is smart, he probably knows everything, right?””
“That’s too vague… First of all, it’s too genericl to assume that I’m smart.”
Well, even though I said that, I basically knew most of the recipe. Wait, what? Aside from a couple of irregularities, was our group not unexpectedly normal? Even if they said I was in charge, I was really just running errands. The fact that I would go and buy the ingredients meant that someone else would be doing the cooking, so it seemed like it would be surprisingly enjoyable. …These were the kind of thoughts I had until classes ended.
School events were generally torture for pessimistic loners like me, although my spirits were raised since it was going easier than expected. Not that I was humming songs, but… I went to the library in an improved mood.
There, Tachibana was in her regular place. It seemed like she was not as motivated as usual to study today. While playing with her lush blonde hair, she stared out the window. Outside, the sky was clear and blue.
As this room was facing opposite the sports field, the shouts from the sports clubs felt rather distant and faint instead of resoundingly loud. Without no sounds and little presence of life, this room ─ wondrous and away from the noises of the school ─ gave the impression of being isolated. And, Tachibana appeared to have noticed me.
She looked over with widened eyes. For a moment, she started to smile… Then, as if suddenly recalling something, her expression became accusatory.
“…I can’t believe you.”
“What now? If it’s about being absent yesterday, I’m sorry.”
Well, we were in the same group after all… and I was not there for the discussion. Besides, I had not helped her with studying either. The meaning was quite different to the apology I gave to Komatsu-kun, however, it was not like I did not mean it towards her.
“Is your health okay…?”
“No problems. Then, let’s start already. What subject is it today?”
Yet, when I approached her, Tachibana thrust her hand out. What is this… it looked like she was saying, “Give it.” Eh…? This, could it be…
“Not that…! Iiidiot! Bookworm is an iiidiot!”
Tachibana puffed out her cheeks while crossing her arms in dissatisfaction. Exactly what was I supposed to have said that would have been correct…?
“Smartphone! LINE! Obviously I was worried, but I couldn’t contact you!”
“Ahh, it was about that…”
“About the excursion, it didn’t really matter. Well… thanks to you being away, I did as I wanted. But at times like this, not being able to contact you… no way.”
“I was just absent from school…”
I see. Although, this was a little problematic…
“But I don’t have one, that thing.”
“Don’t have what?”
“I really don’t have one. Smartphone or mobile phone. I’ve never had one. Not even once.”
Tachibana was momentarily at a loss for words. It was like she could not even say, “Seriously?” or maybe, “Liar, hurry up and give me,” in reply.
Instead, she turned her accusatory stare on me and said,
“…I really can’t believe you, Virgin.”
“How is this related to being a virgin?!”
Seriously this girl, did she just simply want to call me virgin? Even so, it was not unreasonable for her to be shocked. Nowadays, it was impossible to find a senior high school student who did not have one. However, about that… Not carrying a smartphone had many benefits.
First of all, there was no such issues like having an inferiority complex because of how empty your contact list was. By the way, it was great that I could act confident when the time came to exchange contact details after class rearrangements. I mean, since I did not have it from the beginning, it could not be helped.
“Rather, why don’t you have one? Everyone has one, you know? Are you a fossil?”
“I’m sorry for replying to your question with a question, but why do you think they’re necessary? Simply put, it’s just not essential to me. It’s not because my parents won’t let me get one or anything like that.”
“In that case, hurry up and sign a phone contract somewhere. You’re not a loner anymore. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Huh? I’m not proud of this, but even if I signed one, you’d be the only contact to register. I have no intentions on paying for just one person.”
Tachibana clung to my sleeve and stared up at me sulkily. She had pulled me so close that her scent was palpable. It seemed like this girl changed her perfume everyday… Wait, why was I noticing meaningless things like this? But just what was going on… No matter how many times this had happened, I was still not used to this kind of direct eye-to-eye contact. Every time she did something like this, I felt my heart squeeze tight and it was really tough. I really had no idea what expression I should make… So, I instinctively looked away and replied,
“…Sometime soon. If I sign a contract, I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah, that’s good. I’m counting on you, really.”
I said sometime soon, but not exactly when. Even a year later, it would be sometime soon, yeah. Right?
However, it was from here onwards that luck had really betrayed me.
As we were finishing up with our study session that day, Tachibana’s mood was back to normal. With her usual complacent smile, she poked my back and spoke.
“Hey, Bookworm? Then on Saturday, see you at 12pm in front of the station.”
Was this not completely out of context? I questioned her with just a facial expression that meant, “What are you talking about?” At this, she grinned in a triumphant manner for some reason.
“Eh, haven’t you heard? Shopping, it was decided that Bookworm would go.”
“I know that I’m in charge of shopping. Something like that, I can go alone.”
“You know, I can’t leave it to you alone (laugh). Plus we’ve decided on the recipe and all. Of course I should come along.”
Ugh, that was indeed true… Even so, was she not interfering in my business too much recently? I had not thought that her meddling would reach as far as our days off from school. Come on now, go and make more moves on the other guys. Keeping it this way will be bad for your b*tch reputation. …Speaking of which, just how true were the rumours of her being a b*tch?
“Well that’s how it is, so forget about having a cold on Saturday too, okay? Porter-san.”
“Ha… For reference, if I catch a cold by some accident, what happens?”
“During break time everyday, I’ll mess with you in front of everyone. You hate that right? I already knew, geez.”
“I’ll go, I’ll go. Ehh, I’ll accompany you…”
Like that, my schedule for the weekend was filled up. Except, how was I going to explain this to Keyaki?
“Fufu, I made plans with Virgin…”
“Eh, ah, that’s right…”
“Haha, you’re embarrassed.”
I really had no idea exactly what expression I should make in front of this girl. This was something that seemed unchangeable, no matter how many days passed by.
The way that I spent time at school fell into a single pattern, and I was proud of this. Every day was the same repetitious cycle. Go to school, study, go home. On days off, I would conquer games. Even though it was such a pitiful daily routine, it was easy going for the person who was doing it. The only thing that stressed me was whether I passed or failed an exam. Nothing else.
However, when Friday night came… I stared blankly into space. Comfortable and carefree, I was unfocused while sitting on the sofa at home. Tomorrow… I had to go shopping for the excursion. It was fitting that we would be going to the nearby supermarket, yet I now had to take on the major role of being a porter for the queen of our class. I could have gone alone if she had just given me a memo with a list of ingredients for the paella. On top of that, she deliberately made me meet her in front of the station.
Also, there was one concern that remained steadfastly stuck in my carefree head. Basically, was tomorrow a date or not? That was the question. Supposing the one in a million chance that it was a date, what should I wear? Furthermore, the other person was that blonde woman who’s thinking I could not comprehend. Incidentally, she was famous for being frivolous.
Obviously, the person in question knew about those rumours. She was hardly annoyed when I called her B*tch, so maybe a part of them were true. In the first place, she always called me a virgin idiot so if I found out later that she was also a virgin, it would become a huge joke. I remembered one of my classmates had talked about this at one point.
“Well then, what about Tachibana? She’s cute, has a decent rack, plus her personality is great.”
“But her boyfriend, isn’t he a working member of society? Guys like us can’t rival that.”
“Seriously? I heard she’s going out with Takase from class C though.”
“She’ll devour any guy she likes right? Sounds so nice.”
Haa… It was not like I thought anything of it. It would always be like that for a girl who was born beautiful. Well, either way I would forever be a virgin so who cared about that. I had nicknamed myself the “Eternal Virgin Emperor.” It sounded like a title used in Shogi so it felt kind of cool to say it. (TN: Shogi is Japanese chess, often referred to as the Game of Generals.)
Haa, everything had turned troublesome. It would be nice if the excursion was suspended due to bad weather.
I… was so spaced out that I had not even noticed my little sister pulling my cheek. After a moment, I uttered a pitiful “Fu~e?” What a major disgrace.
“Such a miserable face. What’s wrong…?”
Keyaki peered at my face really worriedly. Then Aunt Arika came over from the kitchen while drying her hands, having just finished cleaning the dishes.
“Geez Keyaki-chan. Since you’re his little sister, it’s no good if you don’t notice these things.”
“If a boy suddenly spaces out one day, it means he’s got a girl that he likes, geez! What kind of person is she? Tell tell!”
This love comedy shoujo manga artist was out of control as always. She snorted haughtily. On the other hand, Keyaki was staring closely at me. She actually voiced the “Jiiー…” sound while narrowing her eyes into a glare. Scary.
“It’s mating season. So, Aniki is a monkey too. Seriously disappointing.”
“Ha…?! That’s not it, don’t take anything aunt says seriously!”
“Then let me ask you, Jun-kun. Are you staying at home tomorrow? Or do you have plans to go out?”
Damn, she pierced me with such a sharp point…
“…I’m just going to the game arcade with my junior high friends for a bit.”
“Idiot Aniki. Something like that doesn’t explain why you were spaced out. You looked way too stressed.”
Keyaki pretty much saw straight through my lies. With that, she turned to the side with a huff. Despite that, aunt was looking at my situation with a happy “My, my.” Then, she took out a bill from her wallet and thrust it towards me… Wait. 20 000 yen?! This person, was she stupid?!
“No no, there’s no way I can accept that. Not this much!”
“Girls are expensive, and you can pay me back later.”
“No, that’s not the point… I’m really just hanging out with a friend.”
“If so, then you can return it to me when you’re back. But if you end up using it… I’ll consider it a date and expect a lot from you! Oh, you silly!”
With a thump, Aunt Arika landed a punch on my shoulder. That hurt.
“Ah. But, it’s not good if you don’t buy a condom from the convenience store. Things like that, you need to do properly, alright?”
It’s definitely not a date, damn it. I was only going shopping for class reasons and now everyone was misinterpreting it. I had decided. Tomorrow was not a date. So there was no point thinking about bothersome things like what to wear. It was uncharacteristic of me anyway. Like always, I should just be myself and wear something nonchalant. Alright, I thought of a good idea. I should wear a tracksuit tomorrow, let’s do that. Once decided, I should not look back on it after. I should never look back…
* * *
“Wearing a tracksuit to a date… I seriously can’t believe you.”
“No, well, since I’d be carrying stuff today, I thought this would be easier to move in… Haa, sorry. Actually, there was a situation that was out of my control, so I am truly sorry about it…”
It was the next day, and I was apologising from the very beginning. Without a doubt, I could only say that this was because of my stupidity. Or rather, was this a date after all? I was surprised. But whether it was a date or not, I should not be wearing a full tracksuit to go out with other people. I thought about this with a mind that had been cleared overnight.
Aunt had definitely fanned the flames yesterday night until I had become defensive. Although no matter what, I should not have worn a tracksuit, stupid me. Incidentally, this tracksuit was new and shiny since I rarely exercised.
Of course, Tachibana was visibly frustrated. An almost imperceptible “Hmー…” humming sound came from her lips as she frowned. Somehow, it was like she did not have even an atom of desire to see my blunder as a joke and laugh it off. Her eyes seemed to say, “It’s seriously not funny, Virgin.” I am sorry for being alive.
“…I’m truly sorry…”
With drooping shoulders, my spirit resembled that of someone prostrating themselves on the ground. How should I explain it to her? Thinking about it now, it all sounded childish, beginning with the reason why I had felt stressed. Whether this was a date or not? Even if it was not a date, why did I think a tracksuit would be a good idea?
“You… I knew from the beginning that you might be a little disappointing, but not this much.”
“…I have no words to defend myself, it’s true.”
As for Tachibana, looking at her sophisticated outfit made me feel extra guilty. When I first saw her today, I felt a chill from how smartly she had dressed up. Such flashy girls usually wore a fluffier style, did they not? She was in a black blouse, checkered skirt, and black tights, an appearance that did not match her everyday behaviour.
However, such a serene demeanor contrasted well with her flamboyant blonde hair and gave her a rather polished impression on the whole. There was even a sense of maturity. Then it occurred to me, her black tights and slim fitting clothes emphasised the lines of her body, enhancing her bust and hips so much that I had trouble figuring out where to look.
A beautiful girl with a refined sense and pitiful guy in a tracksuit. With the two of us facing each other, this scene was already bizarre. Moreover, we could not avoid being seen given that we were standing in front of a train station on the weekend. The strange looks that we were getting from passersby felt painful.
In addition, Tachibana’s condemning gaze was on a seriously chilling level. What a terrible disgrace. I want to kill the past me from yesterday. Should I just die already? See, I could just walk over there for a moment… I became overwhelmed by these sorts of thoughts. With such a muddled mentality, I ended up absentmindedly mumbling,
“…Just, please forgive me. I’ll do anything you say today…”
Silence fell for a while between us, broken by a “Hmm?” The blonde woman in an ordinary outfit put her finger on her chin, thinking about something. She gradually softened her expression after hearing the miserable offer from this glasses-wearing guy.
“Really, you’ll do anything?”
“…Urk, if it’s within my capabilities.”
Could it be that her interest was piqued? Tachibana began to smirk devilishly as she scrutinised me up and down.
“…Bookworm, you’ve got a pretty good figure. Unexpectedly tall.”
“Money, did you bring some?”
“Ah, yes. Ah, but please spare me some for travelling expenses.”
“Like I said, it’s not extortion!! Geez, what kind of girl does Bookworm think I am…”
Turning away with a huff, it seemed like Tachibana was a girl who was capable of changing expressions quickly. Since we were often together nowadays, I felt bothered by the fact that I was collecting this kind of useless information.
“Then, keep me company lots today…”
“Haa, just let me know if there’s anything a guy in a full tracksuit can do. Although, apart from carrying your stuff, I don’t think I would be useful for anything else.”
“Fufu… Actually, this could be convenient circumstance.”
Even though I could not understand her pace, it seemed my uselessness had pleased her. However, a task that required money? This just happened to coincide with the ludicrous amount of pocket money that my aunt had given me… As expected, I had a bad premonition about this.
Just as I was thinking that, she gently grabbed my wrist and said,
“Ehehe… this way.”
The place she was pulling me towards… seemed to be a shopping mall. Of course, the gazes of people nearby were painful without mercy. Just her appearance alone would be enough to catch the eyes of the pedestrians.
“Oi, let’s walk a little separately… It’s embarrassing for you, for them to think we’re together.”
“I’ll make it so you won’t be embarrassed, leave it to me.”
Then, Tachibana smiled at me.
“Bookworm doesn’t mind what others think. Right?”
“You still remember something like that…”
To make matters worse, I usually never went out on weekends and yet it seemed like a day of anxiety had just begun. Of course, we headed straight towards the paella ingredients, or not I guess. Instead of going down to the underground food market, we went on the escalator to go upstairs.
“Here, since it’s like this, I’ll choose carefully for you!”
At Tachibana’s word, we began a long tour around the clothing stores. Once again, I actually am wearing clothes at the moment, but walking around this mall in a tracksuit top and bottom was as much of a felony as being naked. It was almost the same getting out of the bath and walking around the house in only a pair of underpants, when my aunt would say, “Hey, Jun-kun, hurry up and get dressed.”
Except this time, I could not simply just put on something quickly. No, on the contrary, there was no end in sight of trying on clothes one after another and so I grew disconcerted. Just from that alone, I completely forgot about lunch. Moreover, these clothing stores called select shops were places I would never go into by myself in the first place. It had such a fashionably composed interior that I wanted to shrink myself and hide somewhere with no people. (TN: Select shops (セレクトショップ) are boutiques that carry a selection of products from several different brands.)
When we came to the third shop, the conversation went like this,
“Hmm. Horizontally striped shirts are hopelessly unfitting. Why is that…”
On the other side of the open curtain to the fitting room, Tachibana seemed troubled with her chin resting on one hand.
“Could it be, Bookworm himself is a little bit of an otaku?”
“No, I don’t want to be criticised about my human nature just because of clothes that don’t suit me!”
It was frustrating that I could not firmly deny being an otaku. Now, in saying that. Currently, I was dressed in a black and white horizontally striped shirt with white pants. Along with that, I was wearing a watch with the sleeves rolled up slightly. I could not understand a girl’s thinking at all. To be so particular with details, this is about choosing clothes, no…?
Certainly, this would not have been my choice if I were to choose. Tentatively, I looked at the mirror to find that first of all, the overall colour was so bright that I shivered in disbelief that this was me. Who was this rotten, herbivorous, socially normal guy… Before that, I felt an “It doesn’t look good on you as expected, pft, keke,” impression rise up inside me with mountainous waves of embarrassment. (TN: Herbivore men (草食系) are guys who don’t aggressively pursue women as potential partners.)
However, there was the issue of what would suit me since this most definitely did not fit well. I did not understand this field at all, so I was doubtful about how improved it would be if I tried on something else.
“This is fine isn’t it… They’re all the same anyway.”
Like I said, I really said that without thinking. In fact, this was why I did not have many casual clothes at home… Apart from the tracksuit I had worn today, I had two pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts, and trainers. Basically, I only had clothes for lounging around at home. Since I did not go out on days off, those clothes had been sufficient thus far.
However, saying this seemed to have displeased Tachibana. She tilted her head upwards and stared at me in dissatisfaction.
“W-what is it…?”
“That’s scary, I’m sorry if I offended you. Well, I’ve just been apologising a whole lot today…”
“Ichijou-kun. You said it yourself that you would do anything today, right?”
“Ahh, that’s right…”
“Good… Well then, next ♪”
The staff member standing to the side gave a half smile at her “next” and handed over the clothes they had been holding, making me want to escape. …Really, I seriously wished they would stop it with that smiling face. About this, we were not close friends or anything. Speaking of which, surely you could have guessed this from seeing me come in wearing a tracksuit? The circumstances are just special.
Haa… Going outside makes me feel so exhausted. With no consideration for this gloomy guy, mannequin-pretending continued endlessly. I had thought it was just an urban legend that women went shopping for ages. Even for my blunt little sister, she would always want to hurry up and go home when we went out once in a while… This was a vast difference.
However, we continued choosing clothes this way at the next store. While sorting through the clothes on the rack, Tachibana suddenly spoke quietly.
“Bookworm. You’re kind of serious, aren’t you…?”
What was obvious about that? I shrugged.
“Well, I wonder… In the first place, being a bookworm is like a subdivision of the serious persona category, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not that…”
With that, she turned to me with a gentle smile. It was not one of her usual grins when she teased people, rather, it was a genuine little smile… It felt pure somehow. You know, when passing through the school grounds after class, there would be a female manager who shouted at the sight of the baseball team training hard. It was that expression in her eyes.
Normally, I would have been embarrassed and turned my gaze away, yet right now… it was like looking at something extraordinarily dazzling and my body froze in place. Young and sparkling, wait… what was this, seriously. I felt sorry for myself somewhat. I wondered if Tachibana felt my bewilderment.
Hanging up the clothes, I thought about easing the atmosphere when… Suddenly, she said, “Ah, ahem!” and turned towards me.
“Umm… Choosing clothes is a really serious matter. The personality of the person who’s wearing them is not important, yes. In saying that, my opinion as a long time fashion nerd is…”
Fashion nerd? Of course, that was obvious. It had always been like this. More than anything, flashy girls like her shared fashion magazines with her showy friends, similar to a noisy incantation. In fact, they even did that in class. And my prejudice against these girls in general was fully transparent. Tachibana puffed out her cheeks on purpose and said,
“Hmph, your face shows that you don’t believe me! At any rate, you’re definitely thinking, “Woah, she’s making it up,” right?!”
“No, I don’t think you’re making it up about wearing clothes or anything… For sure, looking at what you’re wearing now, I can tell you care a lot about clothes.”
“Hmm, that’s not a normal feeling though…”
“I get it, serious fashion nerd. Well, I’m the one who said I’ll do anything. Treat me as a mannequin until you’re satisfied.”
“Hmph, you really don’t believe me!”
Huffing, my blonde classmate pouted in disappointment.
“With clothes, you’re not familiar with them, right?”
“I didn’t really mean that in a profound way. More like I’m simply an amateur…”
“You, the size of your tracksuit is also a bit large. Did you choose it yourself…?”
Urk… To poke me at my weakest point. For someone like me, my aunt tended to come along when I chose clothes up until recently. It was not that I had no sense of style, the main reason was just that I would not go shopping if she did not do that.
For example, even though my body would not get larger than this, I was concerned about my height so I chose a one size fits all.
For example, I would carelessly pick a checkered shirt without thinking about it.
For example, I had worn the same parker for at least three years.
For example, my T-shirts all had English words that I did not understand.
Whether I was aware of this or not, there were only tasteless T-shirts and trainers left at home. Having nearly hit the bullseye with a glance, Tachibana laughed heartily.
“It’s easy. I’ll teach you how to choose ♪”
Tachibana went around the shop, picking up clothes from the rack and frequently holding them against my body to compare.
“Firstly, don’t think about complicated things, just classy and casual!”
Fashion… was like Arabic to me. As though she was appalled from my reaction, Tachibana smiled a little bitterly.
“Dressing simple, fresh, and a bit mature! Surprisingly… it’s perfect with your original image, right?”
Somehow, I felt a bit embarrassed…
“You’re like, “That’s what you want me to think,” right? You’re kind and easy to talk to. Anyway, you want to look like that, right?”
“It’s not like I… understand? As you can see, this is me. There’s nothing kind or anything…”
“Hmph. I thought you would say that… I wish you would be a little more interested.”
Tachibana looked at me in a quiet, bored manner while judging the clothes that she was holding.
“Fine… I get it. Then, since I wear popular clothes…”
“I don’t understand what you mean… So like your image, it’s about trying to earnestly pick something that reflects me?
“Noo… It’s a little different to that, maybe?”
Tachibana turned back to the rack and continued to rummage through the clothes. The diligence had returned to her eyes. Her voice was calm. With a dignified demeanor, she continued to speak.
“Just a bit, I’m going with the direction that I want you to become. For that, the current you… I’ll mix them just a little.”
This blonde girl was now in a slightly serious mode. I had not paid much attention until now, however, her gaze that lingered around the shelves was an earnest one. I always thought that girls liked clothes, but it seemed like Tachibana was special. In the first place, she was choosing clothes for another person entirely. Not for her own sake of being cute. I wondered why…?
She was extraordinarily committed in regards to the outfits that people wore… or it seemed like that. When I realised this, I felt embarrassed again but in a different way. Getting to know someone and becoming friendly with them came hand in hand… Yet I still had not asked why she studied everyday because in the end, I was scared. Still, whenever we were together like this, I would notice various things.
Like, no matter how ditzy someone was, there would always be matters that were important to them. But right now, such a girl was being serious for a guy like me. Feeling my heart squeeze tightly… I absentmindedly mumbled,
“Somehow, it can’t be helped… Just for today, I’ll accompany you until the end.”
Surprised by this, Tachibana looked at me with round eyes. For a moment, it fell silent as neither of us said anything.
“…Lovestruck. Tsundere-kun became lovestruck.”
“Oi, you! That, is that something to make fun of?!”
“Fufu, haha, hahahahahaha…”
Just what was she laughing her head off about… Widening her smile, she held onto her stomach as little by little, she burst into laughter. Yeah, just as I had thought, she was not being serious. She had only wanted to tease me, I was sure of it. She laughed so much that she had to put a hand on my shoulder to support herself until she had calmed down.
“Hahaha… I know, I know. I’ll choose seriously.”
“What’s so weird, honestly…”
After she had finished selecting clothes, it was my turn to stare with widened eyes. Standing in front of the long mirror in the fitting room, I was stunned.
“What, Bookworm, you can do it if you try… ♪ Looking cool and smart.”
Tachibana called from behind me.
Whew, I unconsciously replied in a strange falsetto. This time though, it was not simply her praise that made me feel shy. Right now, the me in the mirror ─ well, as ever, I had an awful feeling of “This isn’t me,” ─ seemed slimmer and taller than usual. Moreover, my appearance was so remarkably composed that I was shocked.
No way, my level of maturity seemed so high… It was almost as if an elementary fifth grader with a runny nose had suddenly changed into a third year university student with sharp senses, leading to weird misunderstandings.
“Don’t think so hard about it, it’s just a plain monotone! To impress girls, I’m starting safe!”
As mothers across the world would have chosen, there were no annoyingly bold colours. For example, the length of this white T-shirt was a bit long which made it seem relaxed. When I thought about it, these black skinny pants made my legs appear longer than they actually were. I had always worn oversized jeans so this was surprisingly tight.
And the pièce de résistance… was this long, navy coat that I probably would never have worn by myself. Even though I called it a coat, it was made of a thin, light fabric that was fitting for springtime, almost like wearing a cardigan. It felt similar to a shirt with a knee-length hem.
Speaking of which, this long coat was tickling my chuuni heart… That is, I felt like a strong character in an online game or something. Someone with a nickname like dual sword demon who breezed through the endgame content. Just the thought of wearing it made me feel pumped up… I guess my maturity is still low after all. Really low. (TN: Chuuni, short for chuunibyou (中二病/厨二病), is slang for the embarrassing behaviour often exhibited by 13-14 year olds.)
Of course, I would be officially pitiful if I were to voice that out loud so I endured it… but…
“It’s because you’re tall. This coordinated outfit fits surprisingly well… doesn’t it? It’s simple and in a muted colour with some white… ♪”
Thinking about how she had been earnest the whole time that she was picking this out, my own thoughts felt embarrassingly childish. Just as she had said… my appearance was cool and smart. Until just a while ago, the unsuitability had been laughable and yet, it was no longer like that now. There was not the slightest trace of boorishness and I even looked stylish. Whether it fit perfectly though, I felt like something was not quite right.
If I had been living another life all along, I think I might even have become someone worthy of the -sama title. As for what I thought was off, I was internally displaced, as could be expected. I was someone who did his best to stay at home as a social recluse on days off. It fit me but not completely. Perhaps this could have been me. This very person.
Abashed that it strangely suited me, I felt like a totally different person. I said that while being mysteriously and deeply moved. First of all, I would not have been able to choose this with my current tastes. And this time, Tachibana seemed satisfied with my response.
“Ehehe. Did I manage to leave in a bit of your bookworm-ish seriousness…?”
“Well, yeah… now that you mention it.”
“Plus there’s a mature adult feeling.”
“You don’t think so…?”
“Uhh… It feels really strange for you to think that way…”
Looking at the mirror while saying this, my image seemed to take on her words more and more, heightening my embarrassment. Ugh, I wanted badly to turn my eyes away… Although, if I really did divert my gaze backwards, my eyes would meet Tachibana’s since she was standing behind me so nothing would change.
“Overall… How should I say it, this is a bit embarrassing…”
“Ehehe… Didn’t I tell you? I will give you a popular outfit ♪”
With that, she poked my backside. Making me popular. Stop it… That was almost as though she wanted me to wear these sorts of clothes and go out with her.
“But, there’s one more thing… Look this way?”
Then came the biggest surprise. Tachibana took one step closer and gently reached towards my face. Her face was right in front of my eyes. I could see her long eyelashes, her white skin, and her provocatively curled, glossy lips. There was her usual feminine scent… and then she removed something. My glasses.
“Fufu. Just like I thought…”
“Idiot, stop it. Without it, I basically can’t see…”
“It’d be good if you wore contacts. Very good. You’re usually cool anyway…”
Cool. Cool…? That was an unfamiliar word. I hardly ever heard it so I did not immediately catch on to its meaning. However, I will admit just this once that having a girl smiling at such a close proximity made me heart gradually beat louder. Cool? Lay off it…
“It’s the best… I’m glad you came today… Come on, wear contacts from today on, okay?”
“Those kind of things are supposed to be discussed with family, to mentally prepare…”
“Please. For me, okay…?”
“Stop it, and you’re too close…”
“Ehehe. You’ll look cool. Can’t be helped, right?”
In the end, I completely used up the large amount of cash that aunt gave me. Due to the contacts, it was actually slightly short so I even brought out some of my original pocket money. Even though she had given it to me to treat a girl, I had spent it on myself. How should I explain this later?
“Since I dressed so lousily to go on a date, the girl became angry and dragged me around to many select shops.”
Yeah, she would be happy about this. Should think of something else, let’s do that. I mean, it was probably just my imagination that everything we did today felt like a normal date. If I had come in a better outfit, I could have returned home a bit sooner…
Now then. Right after leaving the clothes store, I suddenly needed to go to the bathroom. We agreed to meet up again at a nearby bench, however, Tachibana was not there when I came back. She was probably somewhere around this area, right? It would be hugely problematic if I went to look for her and we ended up just missing each other. Since I had neither a smartphone nor a mobile phone, I had no means of communicating with her. As such, I stayed at the bench for the whole time. There was a fairly large game corner close by, booming noisily.
By now, it was 4pm. We came here to buy ingredients for cooking, right? No, we even skipped lunch. Realising this, I felt pangs of hunger. On top of that, I felt weary from having been hauled all over the place.
Either way, it seemed like this dating thing was more like hard labour that wore down both the body and soul. This lesson learnt was hard to come by. Although, it was doubtful whether I would exploit this knowledge or not. Well, even though I said this, it had been quite fun…
I noticed something recently. Whenever I talked to that girl and had her happily next to me, somehow… I felt cheerful from the bottom of my heart. Yet at the same time, I remained obstinate in denying that. Haa… People who became loners in class always had a reason or two of their own. In my case, I think it was probably because my mentality had not developed since summer in the second year of middle school. Even now, my view was something like, “Not interested in girls, let’s study instead lololol.”
Me, a mature adult? That was a heavy responsibility. Clearly, I was not the man that Tachibana was thinking of. I really had no idea what she or anyone else thought.
…Then. While I was arbitrarily wallowing in dejection, a person surprisingly called out to me. It was so unexpected that I was honestly startled… If you thought about it, this was a perfectly normal situation that would happen when going out on weekends. I overreacted.
“Oh, if it isn’t Ichijou-kun.”
What an awfully forced voice. Snide too. And given the people standing in front of me, they were most likely being sarcastic. From my class, they were… wait… who were they again? See, it was the group who often hassled me during lunch. Three classmates… The guy in the center was smirking as he approached. If I remembered correctly, his name was Oomura or Komura or something.
“I mean, you’re alone even here (laugh). What are you doing in a place like this?”
“…I’m sitting by myself,” I replied with a shrug.
At this, Oomura (alias) aggressively said, “Ah?”
Oi, the two guys on the sides looked extremely annoyed. Almost as though they could not care less and just wanted to leave. By chance, was Oomura the only one who wanted to mess with me? Every group had their own peculiar interpersonal relationships. Yet, ugh, that seemed bothersome. I was truly glad to be alone.
“Hey Ichijou-kun, you’re in the same group as Tachibana-san, right? For the excursion. Why?”
“…It just happened. Coincidence, just a coincidence.”
“Let’s swap with the girls in our group.”
You know, girls should not be treated like cards in a game. Anyway, this offer was distinctive of a virgin’s mindset. Seemed like we were equals in that area. Even Gian who said, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” would not do this kind of thing. He would have already graduated from being a virgin at your age, seriously! (TN: Gian is the nickname of Takeshi Gouda, a bully in Doraemon. The quote included here is his catchphrase.)
“Ah. Sorry, that’s out of my control. You should deal with that directly.”
Knowing that it was useless to be angry, I simply gave a half-hearted reply. My thinking was that he would get bored sooner or later. However, the more we talked, the more irritated the other two looked. They had a sort of unpleasant “Ugh” expression. Regrettably speaking, it was disturbing to me that they were suffering as much as I was.
Except… Sitting here alone, I had completely forgotten the fact that I had company today, for once. As if on cue, Tachibana’s insincere voice could be heard from behind Oomura and his friends.
“Ah, it’s Nakamura. How are you?”
Wait, it was Nakamura?! Though, I was close. Nakamura, not Oomura, so it was almost correct. Nakamura was about eighty percent Oomura, right? …Not being able to remember names was my vice.
As for Tachibana, she appeared to be in a pretty bad mood. Even though she was smiling, her eyes had a murderous glint. I knew it, her angry face was frightening after all. She walked towards us and grabbed my hand firmly.
“Jun… let’s go?”
“Hurry. I’m being serious.”
Oi, calm down. That flaunting behaviour, stop it. I wanted to tell her this through my expression, however, I could not catch her eye for the time being. The strained tension prolonged between the two of us as we quickly finished up with our original purpose of coming here, despite spending hours to choose some clothes. Usually, she would say strange and useless things to tease me even while we studied, making time fly past. Just what on earth was wrong?
Anyway, this was the situation as we walked back in silence.
…A dim road with a setting sun.
…Under a sky tinged slightly red, thin wisps of clouds stretched across it.
Alighting at a station that I did not usually get off at, walking along a path I did not normally walk down, and with a girl who I would never have spoken with until recently.
I hauled the ingredients that we bought to the Tachibana residence. With a full plastic bag in one hand, I followed two to three steps behind her. From the beginning, I came along to be the porter today. So obviously, I would not make Tachibana carry anything. My crazily energetic aunt had carefully educated me in this sort of thing so there were no issues there.
Even I could read the atmosphere. Or rather, I usually scrutinised without speaking to the point where I dislike my over-analyzing. Still, I kept myself in my own seat and studied in order to ignore everything, even if I did understand what was happening. So it was no exception that I sensed the mood right now, however… the fact that it felt a little heavy was probably not my imagination.
The Tachibana who had been laughing frivolously while choosing clothes not too long ago, where did she disappear to? After that incident with Nakamura-kun, she had remained silent all along. A few steps in front of me, her long, blonde hair swayed, her heels clicking subtly as she walked.
I did not think she was mad at me specifically. If I was the angry one, I would actually have understood but why must she stress over it? I was feeling mixed emotions too. Despite being hated countless times up until now, I had probably never felt annoyed. For someone who was not even a family member to worry about me, this made me feel frustratingly apologetic. Strangely enough though, I felt a little happy. There was uncertainty in my heart and I had no idea what kind of expression I should make.
Also, I had no idea what to say. Seriously, what was I supposed to say? I did not care about it at all. There was nothing in particular to be worked up about. It hardly mattered what small fry like those guys said. I could have just told her that, but my mouth would not form a single word. I had always been like this. Hence, I became a loner. I was never bothered by words. Besides, unless there was an important purpose, it was rare for me to strike up a conversation with others. As soon as the other party stopped speaking, only silence would follow. Given how this happened even with my little sister, it would probably be the same with others, right?
I mean, maybe this was the reason why I could not remember anyone else’s name. Since I did not talk, there was no need to call out to them. So in the end, I continued to walk without saying anything. However, as long as I maintained this silence, my heart felt worse and worse. Going home quietly in the evening after having fun, this felt a little too emo…
Eventually, the sun sank beyond the horizon and darkness fell, the streetlights brightening. As I looked up, I was surprised yet again by the unfamiliarity of this place. Lined with large houses, we were in a splendid residential area. …And then,
Tachibana halted and I followed suit, responding with a “Hm?”
“You know. I still can’t accept it after all. I’m going to do something about it even if it irritates you. About how you’re treated in class. It’s not just what happened with Nakamura today… right?”
By now, the groceries were so heavy that it felt like the fingers on my left hand were about to be torn off. I tried to walk on without replying, yet Tachibana’s huffy expression rooted my body to the spot.
“…It doesn’t really matter, why do you care about it so much?”
“Haa? Anyone would hate it if someone precious to them was being bad-mouthed.”
Since this was extremely sudden, it was understandably shocking to me. Precious…? Me? It had not been that long since we started talking like this, so…
There were multiple ways to interpret this. In particular, “precious” could mean a wide variety of things. It would not be surprising given that this social butterfly was that type of person. She was a female who frequently came up in rumours that concerned men. Bearing that in mind… I was still unable to meet her gaze as I normally could and ended up replying like this..
“Um… about that. There’s probably a reason why that guy hates me. It’s just that you’re not aware of it.”
“True, but for you to say such a thing yet refuse to show this side of you, I seriously hate it. Building an invisible wall like this, I didn’t think you would be like that.”
“Is that so… You’re pretty straight-forward, huh…”
“But… although you’re like that, I already know a lot of your merits, you know? You’re helpful, never get angry even though you act cold, occasionally untruthful about being lovestruck, and… Do you remember the first time we met?
The first time we met. Was she talking about that time we first spoke in the library? In all honesty, I did not remember anything special about that. Perhaps she meant that it was special since it was the first time, however, there was nothing deeply memorable about it compared to our recent conversations.
“Hmm, so you don’t remember. Well, maybe it wasn’t a big deal for you then.”
“What are you talking about? Naturally, I’m curious now.”
“Hmph!” Tachibana deliberately turned away with a pout. However… making that kind of expression implied that her mood was better, right?
“Haa… let’s go already. How much further? My fingers are in pain.”
“Ah, um… we’re here…”
Here as in, here…? Before my eyes stood a considerably stately mansion. Well, it was not quite a mansion, although there was an elegant terrace on the upper storey and a lush garden out front. The garage was also pretty wide, about large enough to fit three cars.
Seriously… Just what was her social standing? Was this one of those places that looked like they played until they collapsed yet contrary to expectations, they actually had a strict curfew or something?
“Ah, um… it’s a stylish house, huh…”
“Hey! Somehow this is humiliating, geez!”
Oh, this girl, it was rare for her to blush. I thought about teasing her for all the times she made a fool of me, however… I was too tired today, unfortunately. It had been a tough day for a gloomy guy like me. Even though it was a day off, I felt like I had used up two weeks worth of stamina. Still, I did not hate it that much…
“Should I carry this up to the entrance? It’s quite heavy.”
“No… It’s somewhat embarrassing. Thank you for today.”
“For my part, I’m sorry about today. I messed up from the start after all.”
Just like that, I handed her the bag and started to leave. I thought we were already on our separate ways… when I felt a little tug on my sleeve.
“W-what is it…?” I said, turning back around.
As I did so, I saw that Tachibana had an abashed expression.
“Um well, I really had fun today with you, crappy virgin, there were a lot of surprises, that is… thank you. Let’s hang out again. Another hundred times or so.”
“Are you intending to waste all my days off from now on?! Well, it was fun…”
Having my sleeve pulled just when I was about to go home, this was somewhat similar to when we usually parted ways from the library room. It was a little funny, so I smiled slightly. Tachibana still had yet to release my sleeve. I already knew what this meant.
“…Is there still something you want to say?”
“It’s not like we won’t meet at school the day after tomorrow, you know. You can just tell me then.”
“No, it’s has to be now. Here, take this…”
With that, she took out a small paper bag from her purse. I accepted it instinctively since she thrust it at me, however, Tachibana continued to stare at the bag. It seemed like I had no choice but to open it. And the thing inside was,
“Yeah, I got it while you were in the bathroom. The outfit I chose for you today left your neck a bit bare. It fits with the monotone, cut and sewn theme, and the pure white shirt.”
Tied at the end of a black string, there was something that looked like a small gold ring.
“Isn’t this a bit too out of character? It’s a little embarrassing too…”
“That much is fine for you. You’ll get used to it, I’m sure.”
“Or rather, money. How much was it?”
“Fufu, don’t worry!”
Then, Tachibana hoisted the heavy plastic bag over her shoulder and headed towards the gate.
“Consider it as thanks for helping me study everyday! Then, see you the day after tomorrow!”
It was overkill for just a thanks, seriously. Exactly when was I supposed to wear this? The day ended just like that and I returned home in a fairly good mood. Well, it would be alright to live like this sometimes… was what I was thinking. A precious person, huh. Just how long would I continue to be important to her…?