The new semester started, but there was no drastic change.
Everyone spent the winter vacation as they wished, but the changes were not as drastic as they were during the summer vacation; nobody went for a major change in image, and the faces in the class remained unchanged.
Observing the class that’s noisier than usual, Amane sat quietly at his seat, only to be approached.
“Yo Amane, feeling fine?”
“Thanks to you.”
Itsuki arrived at the classroom later than Amane did, still the same as usual.
They never met since Christmas, but he was still having the usual frivolous smile.
“Did you have a good New Year?”
“Why so hesitant? Any progress made?”
“Seriously, what progress…not that, nothing happened.”
Actually, he could not say that nothing happened. Neither wanted it, but Mahiru spent the night at Amane’s place. He could not say this however.
He could easily imagine Itsuki telling Chitose about this, and both of them leering and teasing him.
Other than that, his parents dropped by for Hatsumōde; but that probably could count as nothing.
“Well, I’ll take it as it is then.”
Amane was annoyed by the leer, but he let it be, finding it a hassle to retort.
Time to talk about something else…so he looked around the classroom with such a thought, but nothing special actually happened.
The girls were all gathered around the prince of their batch, Kadowaki. Neither his slightly perturbed look in the middle of them all changed, nor did the plain old jealousy of the boys gathered around them.
“Looks like nothing changed at all.”
“Well, that’s Yuuta for you. Same old, same old.”
Amane was just observing out of boredom alongside Itsuki, who had no interest in other girls as he had a girlfriend, giving a wry smile at Yuuta’s popularity. They then looked around.
“Speaking of which, I heard that Shiina-san has a boyfriend.”
A few girls were huddled together, and upon hearing their conversation, Amane stiffened.
“Ah, Lisa said that. She was holding hands with a boy during Hatsumōde.”
“She did she did. Maybe Shiina-san isn’t interested in anyone because she has a boyfriend?”
“I heard that he’s rather good looking, but he never showed up at school. I wonder if he’s from another school.”
Perhaps it was just him, but it seemed all the stares in class were gathered upon the talking girls. Even that Yuuta appeared to be pricking his ears towards them.
Only Itsuki’s stare was directed towards him.
“I don’t know.”
“I haven’t said anything.”
“Nothing to do with me.”
Itsuki gave a wry smile at Amane’s soft denial, and suddenly lifted the latter’s bangs.
“Well, you keep it hidden, but you have a nice face.”
“Coming from you, I think you’re just teasing me.”
While Itsuki appeared to be lighthearted and have a frivolous vibe, he might be considered a handsome one.
And to Amane, such a handsome lad telling him that felt like a dig at him.
He felt his appearance was merely passable, and did not want to hear others’ opinion of his face.
He waved aside the hand touching his bangs, and frowned, spotting Itsuki’s wry smile.
“That’s how you are.”
“Well, I can say that’s just like you.”
While Amane looked as aloof as before, Itsuki was chuckling instead of looking furious.
“Looks like rumors have spread in school.”
After dinner, he noted to Mahiru who was seated across the dining table. The latter understood what he meant, her face stiffened.
Mahiru herself would be the most perturbed.
It appeared none of the rumors mentioned Amane in person, but it must be exhausting for Mahiru to be asked if she had a boyfriend.
Thus on this day, she looked a little rigid when she arrived at Amane’s house, her steps probably heavy because of this.
“…At least nobody found out it was you, Amane-kun, but it was a lot of effort resolving the misunderstandings.”
“Does holding hands make me a boyfriend now?”
“I do not know. Anyway, I denied it, and said he was someone I know. We just have to wait for the rumors to disappear.”
“Nn, well, that’s to be expected.”
He was sorry to her for being assumed as her boyfriend, so he too wanted the rumors to dissipate as soon as possible. It would be really stressful for her to be asked repeatedly if she was his boyfriend.
The same applied for Amane, who would be restless whenever he heard these rumors, out of apology and shame. He wanted people to forget the rumors.
Haa, he let out a sigh, and Mahiru silently lowered her eyes.
“…Do we look like lovers?”
“Who knows? Right now, someone like me can’t be your boyfriend, Mahiru. You can choose a more handsome guy out there, and even if you’re with me, I look more like an ordinary acquaintance.
“You are not just someone.”
Amane looked towards Mahiru once again after hearing this unexpectedly forceful voice; she reverted back to looking gloomy, though for some reason, she looked a little…furious, adamant.
“You have low self-esteem of yourself, Amane-kun, but that is not true. I do think you are an outstanding person, Amane-kun. You are kind, understanding, gentlemanly, good natured…and really cool when you do dress yourself up.”
His cheeks started to blush as he listened to the earnest praise that did not seem to be so.
Mahiru might have realized how embarrassing her words were, for she started stammering midway through.
Despite that, Mahiru stared at his eyes, indicating that she was being heartfelt; the compliments left him increasingly bashful.
“I-I see…erm, thanks.”
“So-so I say, erm, well…please do not look down on yourself.”
He could not deny it, now that he was praised by her, for the mood would not allow for him to be humble in any way.
Mahiru’s cheeks were slightly reddened as she lowered her head, quivering in shame. Amane too felt the shame rising up within him, and quietly muttered.
“…Well, I’ll go wash the dishes.”
In any case, all Amne could do was to escape sheepishly.
It might be called a tactical retreat, for it was bad for his heart to see her quivering in embarrassment.
Suu, haa, after he took a deep breath, he stood up, and brought the utensils to the sink. Mahiru went to the living room, sit on the sofa, and buried her face into the cushion. It seemed she too was embarrassed, unused to the praise lavished upon her.
Once he saw that, “If you’re embarrassed, don’t say this” Amane murmured, but because of her words, he felt some weight lifted from his chest.
He felt quite relieved after receiving approval, probably.
So he thought, but he was still feeling embarrassed. It was winter, yet he was listlessly washing the dishes with cold water.
『Hey~hey~Amane, lend me the Angel, will ya?』
Chitose called in three days after the new semester started, after dinner.
Usually, they would contact each other through app, but for some reason, she called Amane, asking the latter about Mahiru. He had no idea what she was planning.
She said to lend her, but Mahiru was not Amane’s belonging. Chitose should have asked her directly.
“Don’t ask me, ask Shiina.”
『She’s next to you now, right?』
『Then ask her if she wants to go out with me tomorrow.』
“Ask her yourself.”
She doesn’t have the number? He wondered, but he remembered then that during Christmas, Chitose was fully focused on teasing Mahiru, and did not have time for that.
And also, Amane would surely have Mahiru’s contact, and was often with her. It was to be expected why he was contacted.
Chitose’s thought process was understandable, but he wanted to tell her that he was not a mail pigeon.
In any case, it would better for Mahiru to discuss this instead, so he thought as he handed the phone to an incredulous looking Mahiru next to him. “Chitose wants to talk to you.” So he said, and slumped into the sofa.
Mahiru looked a little perturbed, but she obediently brought the phone to her ear.
“I am taking over…eh, tomorrow? Y-yes, I have no special arrangements…”
It seemed Mahiru was taken aback by Chitose’s sudden rapid fire talk, and he could only watch her perturbed look with a wry smile.
She did not seem impatient, just taken aback by the sudden suggestion, hapless, not knowing what to do.
She glanced aside to him, “Just see what you want. She wants to go out with you, not me” he answered.
Mahiru would go out with her friends once in a while, but her priority was to return home and prepare dinner hours later.
He thought she should have a break once in a while, leaving aside whether she would be getting a break going out with Chitose.
“Y-yes…erm, I will like to accept this invitation…”
She might have made up her mind after hearing Amane’s words. When she answered Chitose, he could hear the latter go “Alrighty!” over the phone, and Mahiru instinctively pulled the phone away from her ear.
He chuckled dumbfoundedly at how Chitose was being all enthusiastic, and met Mahiru in the eyes
She looked a little worried, but her lips still showed a smile of relief and joy.
Once the voice had quieted down somewhat, she picked up the smartphone, and started talking.
She was smiling as she talked, and Amane too smiled as he looked at her.
“Thank you very much. I shall return this to you.”
Once the call ended, she carefully returned the smartphone to him.
It seemed they had made plans, and she would be dragged somewhere by Chitose.
“That was sudden, wasn’t it? That’s basically Chitose.”
“W-well, that shocked me.”
“She’s not a bad person, just a little too forceful.”
Though he felt the ‘a little’ might be understating it, he gave her a mild appraisal. She definitely was not a bad person, just a little pushy.
Mahiru might have understood the personality well as she gave a wry smile, but luckily, she did not seem annoyed by that. It was a little tragic that while she was the girlfriend of his own close friend, he just could not get along with her, even though it was common.
“You don’t have to worry about me tomorrow. Just go enjoy yourself.”
While he wanted her to enjoy it, he had to remind her of something.
“If she sexually harasses you, just punch her without worrying about it. That one’s just like my mom; she likes cute, pretty things, so she probably will want to touch you all over since you’re so pretty.”
They managed to stop her the last time, but Chitose really liked cute things.
He had Chitose’s keen eyesight assist him for Mahiru’s birthday, but he was uneasy about having her remain alone with Mahiru.
Mahiru had the look of an ideal beautiful girl, her cuteness and beauty would garner lots of bystander stares whenever she walked down the streets.
It was imperative for Mahiru to be wary of anyone approaching her, and also Chitose’s demonic clutches.
“Well, you don’t have to do this if you don’t like her, but if you don’t reject her outright, she might just get cocky and harass you, so be careful…what is it?”
“…Nothing at all.”
She pursed her lips, and he found it weird, but she never stated what was on her mind, instead averting her eyes silently.
On the day Mahiru went out with Chitose, Amane was alone at home, finally getting some peace after such a long while.
Recently, Mahiru had been by his side, and the only other time he got to be alone was his rest days.
Even then, Mahiru would suggest to cook lunch, and he would accept heartily, so that alone time had decreased further.
Of course, he did not hate it…he might even feel at ease, but it was good to have some personal time occasionally.
Though it felt cold next to him.
（For some reason, it feels like Mahiru has become completely familiar with me.）
He felt it was a given for her to be next to him, but in fact, only a few months passed since their first encounter.
Despite that, it felt like they spent many years together, probably because they had so much compatibility.
They did not interfere with each other too much, shared the same air, and this bit of gap between them was something Amane was very content with.
The troubling thing was that he did not want to let go of this comfort.
（I’m really a simpleton.）
He felt that while he liked her, there was no such passion between them. As mere neighbors and friends however, he might be too possessive of her.
He liked her more than a friend, and at the same time, he was aware that there was only a little spark in thinking she would be a love interest; he felt an unspeakable itch within him.
If his fondness of Mahiru tilted any more on the balance, he felt there would be no turning back.
Thus, he kept the ignited heat within his heart, burying it.
If he expressed his fondness of her, she would be perturbed, it seemed.
She had expressed some level of fondness to him, but he felt it was not borne out of love.
After all, there was no way she could fall for a useless boy like him who kept causing her trouble.
She had appraised him, but he felt there was no way she could fall for him. If he expressed his fondness in the wrong manner, the relationship between them would only be awkward.
He suppressed the throbbing uneasiness in his heart, and silently looked out of the window.
The winter nights came earlier, and there was already a dark veil laid around them.
It was merely past 6, but one could say it was night.
After all, Chitose would not take her out till so late at night, yet he was uneasy about having two pretty high school girls wander alone outdoors when it was dark.
『When are you done?』
He messaged Chitose, who would always have the smartphone with her『We’re going to say bye bye soon』and received this instant reply.
It seemed Chitose too did not intend to stay outdoors for too long after school, so Amane asked when they would arrive at the station, stood up from the sofa, and went to the basin.
（I still have some wax from the other day.）
He was rather unwilling, but since he would be meeting Mahiru, he had no choice.
He really did not want to do this, but his parents taught him how the tricks to increase his charm. At the very least, he could replicate the hairstyle from back then, somewhat.
He looked into the mirror, and saw his usual gloomy self.
So he took the wax, and personally changed the usually boorish, gloomy looking self with his own hands.
It was winter, and the nights without sun were really cold.
He wore a light grey sweater with a navy blue pea coat for warmth and fashion, along with black skinny pants with inner lining; he was still so cold, so how cold would Mahiru be wearing only a coat over her uniform?
Mahiru would wear thicker tights for winter, but her skirt was barely short enough for a high school girl to not break the rules or look crude, and one would feel really cold just looking at it. He thought she should wear some pants.
The few high school girls he brushed by were swaying their meaninglessly short skirts, and he was painfully aware how much hard work they put into beauty.
So he thought as he covered his lips with the muffler Mahiru gave him, and hurried towards the nearest station.
It seemed they went to a large shopping facility, and took the train there. The nearest station from the apartments was within walking distance, and Chitose said that the train was about to arrive, so he should be right on time.
The hair gently blew at his waxed hair as he walked, but not ruining it.
He would have to tidy up his hair if it got messy, and that would be troublesome. He felt that those who usually dolled themselves up were worthy of respect.
So he thought as he moved on silently, and spotted the station.
She might appear at this entrance, considering the direction of the apartments. If he waited near here, he should surely meet her.
He leaned his back on the entrance wall, looking at the time as he waited for Mahiru; soon after, the girl with the familiar flax-colored straight hair exited the station.
He called out to her, and she turned around after hearing the familiar voice, only to freeze once Amane appeared in her sights.
“Eh, …yes? Wh-why?”
The why probably referred to this getup.
She probably knew from Chitose that he would be picking her up, but she probably never expected him to welcome her with the Hatsumōde appearance.
After all, she could not imagine Amane showing up in his usual attire and hairstyle.
It would be troublesome if anyone around them spotted him and connected the dots. Furthermore, even Mahiru would look down on him if he was to walk alongside her in his usual getup.
He was intending to disguise himself, but at the very least, he could appear passable standing next to Mahiru.
“You’re thinking I can’t do that? I can’t meet you in my usual style after all.”
“…That is correct.”
“It doesn’t suit me? I did check the mirror. Weird?”
While he was dressed normally, his hairstyle was exactly the same as during Hatsumōde. He did not think it was anything, but it might be different to those who had an outstanding sense of beauty.
He had some stares directed at him, and there was a possibility that he looked weird.
He dressed up quite a bit, but it seemed he still looked plain, and he shook him a little. Mahiru however shook her head “it suits you.” He was relieved at her affirmation.
“That’s good then. Look, it’s dark out here. It’ll be dangerous for you to walk alone.”
“…I-I know that, at least.”
“Or you don’t want me to pick you up? If you aren’t willing, you can follow me from behind. I’ll walk ahead of you.”
“I-I do not dislike that. Erm…thank you, very much.”
It appeared she was not being hated, and he was relieved as he withdrew his hand from his pocket. She tentatively placed hers onto his.
Perhaps due to the cold, her hand was somewhat colder than he expected.
“It’s cold. Where’s your glove?”
“I washed it today. What about your hand, Amane-kun?”
“I put my hands in the pocket.”
He arrived with both hands in his pocket, and no good child should imitate him; it was nothing particularly noteworthy.
He did not say anything more, just wrapping his hand the fine, cold hand.
Mahiru’s hand was really slender, delicate, unreliable.
It was easily wrapped in Amane’s hand.
“…It is warm.”
She muttered, narrowing her eyes as she seemingly beamed.
The earnest emotions had his heart pounding, but he focused on the hand, and did not showcase how shaken he was.
He held her hand, taking the bag from her shopping trip with Chitose before walking off..
Chira, she glanced up at him, “What?” and he answered,
Mahiru stared at Amane, before she finally looked aside.
Her ears and cheeks were slightly red, either from the cold, or from staring at him for too long.
“Alright, shall we get something from the convenience store on the way back? The meat buns are really delicious in this season.”
“…I like red bean flavored.”
“You really like sweets…what about dinner?”
“I have prepared some seasoned eggs, char siu and menma, so ramen.”
“Ramen for these cold days sound nice.”
He did not know as he never checked the fridge, but it seemed she bought those days ago.
They had to buy the soup and noodles, but the ingredients were all hand made. His throat croaked as imagining the thick char siu and the robust taste of the half-boiled eggs.
That taste would surely fill the cold bodies.
“…I do not know if I can eat the red bean bun.”
“We’ll share half of it. You can eat dinner then.”
She bashfully accepted his suggestion, and he smiled, exerted a little more strength in the grip holding her hand.
“I think Shiina-san was spotted walking with the same boy again.”
And the next day, Itsuki shot Amane a reproaching look for adding fuel to the fire once again. Amane played dumb as he looked aside.