A few days after Tsuyako said those ominous words in the garden, trivial matters happened to Aoi one after another.
While on her way to school, her pleated skirt was torn by a small blade; there were plucked Hollyhocks placed on her desk and in her cupboard. She lost her books, pencil case, gym clothes, and the palette and brushes she left in the club room.
Whenever that happened,
“This is bad, Mr. Akagi!”
Hiina of the newspaper club would come notifying him.
On this morning, Hiina was standing in front of Koremitsu’s table, putting her round face on the table as she rattled off,
“Who can the culprit possibly be? It seems Her Highness Aoi would be the victim of such annoying acts during the time she was Lord Hikaru’s fiancee, but this is the first time the culprit has acted so overtly. The Matriarch Asa is getting scary though. If the culprit is caught, she’ll definitely roll him in a Sumaki sushi roll and deport him on a ship to the freezing lands of Siberia.”
She even pretended to shiver a little, and then gave a boyish smile.
“Let’s look for the culprit together, Mr. Akagi. Her Highness Aoi might have an improved view of you if you do so. Perhaps even the Matriarch Asa will approve of your relationship with her.”
“For me…it doesn’t matter. We weren’t dating in the first place.”
Honoka was seated at her chair, playing with the cellphone. She had been trying her best to avert meeting Koremitsu in the eyes, and Koremitsu himself could not find the chance to talk with her. He wanted to have a proper chat with her one of these days, but he did not have the time at this point.
“According to the intel I collected, it seemed someone saw a black, long haired girl around the time the events occurred. Let’s look for this woman.”
“Alright now, just hurry back to your class.”
“Ah, where are you going, Mr. Akagi?”
“I’m joining you then.”
“Don’t follow me!”
He shook Hiina off his trail, entered the toilet cubicle, and sat on the seat with a bitter look on his face.
“It seems Miss Oumi has already suspected somebody, and only approached you as a formality. I guess even Asa has already known it, but could not make a huge ruckus out of it because of that person’s status, and she must be really anxious about it.”
Hikaru frowned as he spoke from the ceiling.
“Did…senpai do it after all?”
“Tsuyako will not do such a thing, but–“
Hikaru spoke harshly with a serious look.
“It might be possible if it is Rokujō.”
–I am the descendant of the spider. The woman who ate her husband and the mistress–is called Rokujō
Tsuyako said with a hazy expression, the alluring whiff of poppy seeds coming from her.
–Are you able to stop Rokujo, Mr. Akagi?
Tsuyako’s voice appeared in his mind together with the alluring fragrance, and he felt a heavy heart, his chest seemingly heavy, stuffed with stones.
(Is it really possible for a woman to become another one completely?)
However, Tsuyako was clearly afraid of Rokujo’s shadow, troubled over it.
“Hm, anyway, there’s no doubt that it has something to do with senpai.”
Koremitsu gritted his teeth.
How can they possibly stop Rokujo’s madness? Even Aoi would not be able to handle such things happening to her all the time.
Hikaru sank into deep thought with a serious expression, and soon spoke,
“First, we have to lure Tsuyako after from Miss Aoi. Once that happens, Miss Aoi will be safe, and Tsuyako will calm down. Anyway, Tsuyako needs a change of mood.”
“So in other words, what do you mean?”
“Can you please ask Tsuyako out for a date?”
♢ ♢ ♢
Upon seeing Koremitsu at the second year classroom before the morning homeroom meeting, Tsuyako showed a skeptical expression.
“Come with me for a while, senpai.”
“Accompany you? Homeroom is about to begin, you know? Eh! Mr. Akagi–“
Koremitsu callously grabbed Tsuyako by the hand and left the classroom just like that.
“The delinquent king just kidnapped the Moon Matriarch!” “Are those two hooking up together after all?” He could hear such voices behind him.
Tsuyako rolled her eyes in shock as Koremitsu led her by the hand. Back then, it was Tsuyako dragging Koremitsu around the school on a date, but the situation has been reversed.
Both of them changed their shoes at the shoe locker, passed through the school gates, and proceeded down the pedestrian sidewalks.
“Mr. Akagi, there will be new rumors if you do such things again. It is best that you do not get involved with me. I did tell you before that you do not have to attend club activities.”
“I heard them, but I can’t agree to that. You’re my senpai after all.”
Koremitsu held Tsuyako by the hand as he said adamantly. Tsuyako looked shocked, her shoulders shivering.
“Senpai, you’re still troubled about Rokujō, right? Just enjoy yourself and release your frustrations, you’ll feel better. Hikaru did say this before, right?”
Tsuyako’s eyes immediately watered the moment Koremitsu mentioned Hikaru’s name, all sorts of feelings swirling in her.
“So, for today, let’s try out the route Hikaru recommended.”
(I’ll let you guide us around, Hikaru.)
Koremitsu glanced diagonally upwards, and Hikaru gave a confident beam in return,
“First, let us head to the tropical gardens. Tsuyako does like the Banyan and banana trees.”
“First, let’s go to the tropical gardens! The Banyan and banana trees are waiting!”
♢ ♢ ♢
They took the train, and arrived at the garden by the sea.
They passed through the main gates, marvelling at the soft, bent branches, the southern trees with the leaves shaped like a rooster’s crown and the yellow Cannas as they strolled on. They passed through the dim forests, and there was a bowl-shaped coliseum surrounded by large cherry blossom trees. There was even a cat napping on the bench, the place was so serene. A little further on, and they would arrive at the large birdcage-like dome.
Amidst them, what welcomed them were the dazzling sunlight shining through the window, the sounds of ripples and splashes as the artificial waterfall roared on; the rich green canopy of coconut and ferns, the red hibiscuses, the flowers that were gathered together like the crimson birds, and the damp air.
“The English name of the Heliconia Rostrata is the Hanging Lobster Claw. Here, if you look at this crimson flower, it does look like the dried shrimps placed on the sushi rice, no?”
Hikaru quickly boasted the vast knowledge he had.
All the trees were growing high into the sky, showing the vibrancy they had. The leaves were many, rustling away. The flowers too were dyed with bright colors like red, orange and yellow, capturing the eyes of many, being full of life.
Tsuyako, who had been looking bashful while riding on the train, blushed slightly while the train was moving, her eyes regaining life in them.
“Hikaru and I have been to this garden many times. Hikaru told me that whenever he wanted to cheer up, he would come by here, and get power from the trees and flowers here. You see the trees growing by the waterfall? The flowers with the patterns look like a kirin, right? It is called the Cyathea Mertensiana. Ah, and this Banana tree, I really like it.”
There was a tall tree, ostensibly trying its best to spread a green fan; Tsuyako stood in front of it, and smiled as she looked up.
“I said to Hikaru before that I really want to dance while holding such a beautiful fan.”
Tsuyako walked around in the park, and her expression brightened as she was seemingly reminiscing about Hikaru. Hikaru too gave a delighted, gentle look as he witnessed this.
(Senpai seems a lot more energetic now, Hikaru.)
As long as Tsuyako was stable, Rokujō would probably vanish.
It was merely an optimistic thought, but Koremitsu’s heart finally calmed down.
After that, they walked around the dome for quite a while, had some Indonesian spicy rice, prawns and vermicelli salad at a restaurant, went window shopping, saw a ship on display in a pavillion, strolled about the plaza, did some workout at a gym, rested at a bench by the seaside while drinking juice, and by that time, it was almost evening.
Tsuyako laughed away loudly a few times beside Koremitsu.
They were on the way back, and Tsuyako suddenly stopped in front of the cherry blossoms tree that was starting to be dyed golden.
She stared quietly at the cherry blossom with a reminiscing look,
“When the flowers bloom…that is the beginning of it all…after that comes summer, and once autumn ends…there’s winter to pass…”
She muttered in a lonely manner.
Koremitsu knew that the first time Hikaru and Tsuyako met was during a spring night, when the moon was shrouded, beneath the cherry blossom tree. At this point, one had to wonder if Tsuyako was praying for Hikaru to appear from behind the tree, smiling.
Her expression was akin to that of one hoping for a miracle that would not happen as she stared at the sturdy branches engulfed by the golden light.
Koremitsu’s chest started to ache.
At this moment, Hikaru spoke warmly,
“Hey, Tsuyako, when we were still dating, I once said to you ‘if my fiancee was not Miss Aoi, but you, what would have happen?’ The sons of the Mikados have to marry the females of either the Udates and the Saotomes. The legitimate son marries Tsuyako of the Udates, and I will marry Miss Aoi of the Saotomes. On the other hand, the reverse might occur.”
(Is that so? In that case, there’s a chance senpai could have been Hikaru’s fiancee.)
Hikaru stared at Tsuyako with clarity.
And Tsuyako had her eyes lowered in front of the cherry blossoms.
“Back then, Tsuyako smiled and answered, ‘in that case, I will not be dancing right now, I will not be able to know of such intense love, and I will not be able to love you. I do not need a date other than this–“
Those words would not be able to reach Tsuyako’s ears.
But the emotions she had back then was echoed clearly in Hikaru’s words,
“‘I do not wish to change fates with Miss Aoi. Even if God allows that to happen, I will refuse so.’ that was what she said.”
Koremitsu’s heart raced, for he seemed to hear that clear, proud voice.
“Back then, Tsuyako was strong and beautiful, always looking so proud, like the bright red weeping cherry blossom blooming in the middle of a garden.”
Hikaru narrowed his eyes lovingly.
He was so proud of this firm, dignified Tsuyako, how ravishing she was.
Hikaru’s emotions have moved Koremitsu’s heart.
“Hey, senpai. Hikaru did say that you’re the most beautiful red weeping cherry blossoms that stands tall in the middle of a garden. It’s true.”
Koremitsu really wanted to convey Hikaru’s feelings to Tsuyako, who had her head lowered, her back shrunk.
He really wanted to let her know of the love and delight Hikaru had showered upon her.
Tsuyako’s shoulders shivered as she clasped her hands tightly, muttering guiltily as she said,
“I-I’m not like that…”
Hikaru spoke with an earnest expression,
“Tsuyako, what does Rokujō want you to do? Is there anything I can do for you?”
Koremitsu too asked with a serious look,
“Senpai, you must be feeling troubled now, right? Tell me, is there anything I can do?”
Tsuyako lifted her head at Koremitsu, trembling. She let out a weak, helpless look, her stare wavering; she was probably hesitant about it. After biting her lower lip slightly, she hoarsely replied, panting,
Koremitsu too held his breath as he listened in intently.
“Rokujō…wants me to…”
Sudenly, Tsuyako winced.
“What’s the matter, senpai!?”
Tsuyako stared at the cherry blossom branch with a pale look. There was a thread dangling from it, and on its tip was a spider, so miniscule one had to focus on it, swaying away.
Her eyes had lost all life, and reverted back to being hazy.
“No…no. Do not…so-sorry, I feel a little…I-I need the washroom. Please head back for now, Mr Akagi.”
Tsuyako darted off without waiting for Koremitsu’s reply.
Koremitsu glared at the spider, and gave chase after Tsuyako.
However, once he arrived at the toilet outside the dome structure, he could not find Tsuyako no matter how he waited.
“She’s not in the toilet?”
He pulled out the cellphone, and dialled Tsuyako’s number.
“Ugh, now I’m left on voicemail.”
The result was the same no matter how many times he tried.
“I have a bad feeling about this, Koremitsu. Let us check the school.”
“Oh yeah, maybe senpai went back to get her bag.”
With no other ideas, Koremitsu could only rush back to the school, spending the same time he did coming to this place.
The sun had already set by the time he arrived, yet the school campus was lit.
Koremitsu checked Tsuyako’s shoe locker once he entered. There was only a pair of indoor shoes, not the outdoor shoes.
“She didn’t come by…?”
Hikaru stood by his side, sighing.
No matter how Koremitsu tried to call, he could not get through. If only she had returned home safely…
For added precaution, Koremitsu decided to check the classroom. Thus, he tried looking down the corridor from the entrance, and just when he started to move,
“Look at that, Koremitsu!”
Hikaru exclaimed stiffly.
Koremitsu too was shocked.
There was a woman, dressed in uniform under the hazy moon, standing in front of the Oleander tree in the garden.
The woman had glossy black hair reaching from her shoulders to her waist, swaying bewitchingly in the air.
There were ripped flowers scattered all around that woman, and just when Koremitsu’s group watched her with bated breath, she peeled the flowers, crushed them, and tossed them away with her slender arms.
Oumi did say that after what happened to Aoi, someone witnessed a woman with long black hair.
(Is it her–)
Koremitsu ran towards the garden.
The other person too started running, the glossy hair swaying about. At that instant, an alluring fragrance grazed past his nostrils; it was the aroma of poppy seeds being added to the fire! The sweet, alluring–!
“Wait, are you Rokujō!?”
The clouds covered the moon, and his vision was dimmed. The woman darted through the woods skilfully, her rich black hair only appearing sparsely.
His heart was throbbing wildly, ostensibly breaking apart, and it was sizzling deep inside his head. Amidst the darkness, Koremitsu stared at the target while gasping, but soon lost sight of it.
(What’s with that woman?)
“Hikaru, did you see her face?”
Koremitsu turned his neck around, and Hikaru, floating in the air, shook his head bitterly,
“It was too dark; I could not tell.”
Koremitsu sat on the ground, and groaned as he looked skyward.
Was that woman Rokujō?
(Her silhouette…seems rather tall for a woman. She’s probably the same height as senpai here…I guess. But the hair’s completely different. The woman has black hair, but senpai…did hate her hair before she met Hikaru; she felt unhappy about it, even complaining why she did not have black hair.)
This person seemed similar to Tsuyako, yet seemed a completely different person.
(Ugh, I don’t know!)
At this moment, the cellphone in his bag rang.
It was from Tsuyako!
Koremitsu called out harshly, and Hikaru too brought his face over with a tense look.
A hoarse voice could be heard,
“…Mr Akagi, leave me alone now.”
The silhouettes of Tsuyako and the black-haired girl who plucked the flowers overlapped, causing Koremitsu’s back to chill.
With a harsh–and trembling voice, Tsuyako continued,
“It is for your sake…there is no way to stop Rokujō. The stench can never be removed. It still sticks on me no matter how I try to wash it away. I cannot remove that odor…that foul stench–“
“Senpai, where’re you now?”
Silence descended, with the sound of water in the background.
“…Do not call me senpai anymore.”
She muttered with an utterly lethargic tone, and hung up the phone.
Standing beside him, Hikaru looked as if his heart was ripped apart.
♢ ♢ ♢
“You got to be kidding. How else am I supposed to address her?”
The next morning.
With his eyebrows raised, Koremitsu walked down the dirt track leading to the school.
“If she’s in front of me, I’ll call her senpai a hundred times over!”
Beside him, Hikaru spoke quietly,
“Tsuyako does not wish for you to get involved, Koremitsu.”
“Are we just going to leave her alone? Your worries over senpai aren’t settled, right?”
“That is not the case. I am truly worried here, but I have been thinking, why would Rokujō–“
Just when Hikaru’s eyes were about to sink into the abyss of thoughts.
The cellphone in Koremitsu’s bag rang.
Was it Tsuyako?
He took it out to confirm, and then, his lips curled into a frown.
(An anonymous mail–some advert from a porn website or something?)
He was about to delete it, but stopped once he saw the title.
“The women who were with Lord Hikaru. Second Act: ‘Tsuyako Udate’.”
At that instance, his throat was parched.
(Is this message just like the one sent to that braided girl?)
Back then, the name mentioned in the message title was Yū.
Hikaru, glancing from the side, frowned as well.
Once he opened the message, he saw the filthy terms like ‘whore’, ‘lewd’, and there were also contents regarding the ‘spider’s blood’.
During the Heian Era, one of the Udate’s female ancestors became a lover, biting to death her husband and the mistress.
It was also written that during the beginning of the Showa Period, that was a woman of the Udate family who gorged her husband’s mistress eyes at her maiden house, cut the hair off, killed the mistress, and dragged the husband into the sea as she committed suicide.
Even till now, there was still the demonic blood of the spider within the bodies of the Udates’ females, and would react based on jealousy. Lord Hikaru was probably bitten to death by a Udate woman–Tsuyako. That was written on the message.
Koremitsu deleted the message, and stuffed the cellphone into his bag.
“It was the same as Yū back then. This is disgusting! Who sent such messages in the first place?”
“But I must say, if it were someone who simply wanted to create commotion, I do feel that person knows too much about the Udates.”
Hikaru too looked on grimly.
“Then is the sender someone you know? For what reason?”
“I do not know.”
Hikaru answered stiffly, and kept his mouth shut, sinking into deep thought.
More students started to make their way to school around them, and Koremitsu too went silent. However, his head was sizzling due to rage.
(Damn it. If such messages are going around like this, everyone’s going to think that senpai’s the one who did such annoying things to Aoi. I don’t know who sent this, but I won’t forgive that person.)
His eyes were glaring, causing fear in the other students; he changed his shoes at the locker, and as he walked down the corridor to his classroom,
There was an apprehensive voice behind him.
Dashing towards him at a startling rate was Honoka, who had her eyes raised.
“Great, you’re here in school now, Akagi! Come with me!”
Honoka panted as she grabbed Koremitsu by the elbow, and dragged him along.
Hikaru widened his eyes, and Koremitsu too looked anxious.
“H-hey, Shikibu! What’s this all about?”
Even though she never wanted to look at him during the past few days.
(Isn’t she still angry at me? Didn’t she say something like I don’t care about this guy anymore? Didn’t she think that I’m a lost cause?)
Honoka raised her lips, and said,
“The Lord Hikaru portrait Her Highness Aoi has drawn disappeared from the art room.”
Koremitsu knew too that Aoi had been drawing a portrait of Hikaru ever since that birthday date at the theme park.
She had said abashedly to Koremitsu before that she was inapt at drawing human profiles as she did not have much practice, so she was really anxious about it. However, she would show it to him once she was done.
And now that portrait is missing?
(Don’t tell me that yesterday–)
Koremitsu’s gut wrenched as he recalled the Rokujō that plucked the flowers.
Hikaru too showed a solemn look.
Honoka dragged Koremitsu along, saying,
“It’s said that the painting discovered to be missing this morning, and everyone’s thinking whether it was stolen. The Matriarch Asa even charged over to upperclassman Tsuyako, interrogating her if she stole it.”
“Are you serious?”
Did Asai Saiga really go over to find senpai?
“This is bad, Koremitsu! If Asa’s doing such a thing, it means her patience is at its limit. The Udates have deep ties with the Mikados, so she did not wish to blow this up. If she is looking for Tsuyako right away–!”
It was rare for Hikaru to be this anxious.
“Hurry, Koremitsu! Stop Asa before she stuffs Tsuyako into concrete and throws her into the Tokyo Bay!”
Even the cousin and childhood friend Hikaru would see Asai as such a character; Koremitsu inadvertently sweated as he increased his pace.
Honoka let go of Koremitsu’s hand, and both of them dashed down the stairs in large strides.
“The Matriarch Asa looks really scary with that killing aura around her. Upperclassman Tsuyako may be killed by her if we don’t hurry!”
Honoka was brave enough, not being terrified of Koremitsu’s savage looks when they first met, but at this point, she was shivering in fear all over.
Koremitsu knew that he should not be wondering about such things, but upon realizing how dangerous Asai looked in all sorts of ways, he inadvertently felt some sympathy for her.
Koremitsu himself had been a victim of such rumors, like how he beat a dozen hooligans or so from other schools to near death, or that a certain school’s wrestling club president disappeared without a trace after getting a glimpse of him, or that how he took on a member of the yakuza with a dagger, and made the other party apologize.
Both of them darted down the corridor, and there was the classroom with the Japanese Dance Club signplate.
Asai’s voice could be heard from within.
“Such a shameless woman.”
The cold, sharp voice was so strong it could have severed the other party’s heart in half.
“It is great that a person like you is not married to the Mikados. The Mikados do not need to deal with a thief, a filthy whore, a flawed person.”
Once he opened the door, he found Asa and Tsuyako, dressed in a sleeved kimono, were glaring at each other.
Asai’s stare was as icy as that of the SIberian Winter, but the startling thing was that Tsuyako was not backing down. The latter shot back at Asai’s stare with a proper, feisty stare of her own, causing one to be skeptical as to whether she was the one who called with such a weak voice the previous day.
“A whore? I am surprised you do understand those rotten terms really well, Miss Asai. Is it because you wrote them in the books you like? Are you not like one yourself, barging in here without a greeting and starting a ruckus?”
“Do you have the right to say such things? You have done annoying things since young, like plucking off all the Tulips in Aoi’s garden, putting a rat’s carcass by the windowsill of Aoi’s room. Do you really hate Aoi that much?”
“What about you, Miss Asai? You love to show up for Miss Aoi whenever something happened to the latter, but you have always been lax about protecting her. Or is that that you are being all confused the less you are able to protect Miss Aoi. Besides, where is the proof that I did so?”
“You are the same as usual, pretending not to know anything, pushing the blame onto others, acting nonchalant even while eloping with somebody’s fiance.”
“It is because the one who got betrayed was lacking in charm, I suppose?”
“Where is Hikaru’s portrait.”
“I do not know. Where indeed?”
The two girls practically had swords drawn as an icy chill filled the room. Embarrassingly for Koremitsu, he was standing at the door, unable to step inside.
(A women’s spat…is really scary. My back’s itching in fear.)
Honoka was glaring at Koremitsu, ostensibly asking why the latter had yet to step in
But Koremitsu only felt that if he were to step inside, he would be chased out by the avalanche-filled air.
Like Koremitsu, Hikaru too peeked into the classroom at the door worriedly.
Speaking of which, it was the first time he heard of Tsuyako pulling pranks on Aoi–no, it seemed Aoi had said something of that sort before,
—Miss Tsuyako does hate me too. She has been bullying me since our childhoods, and deliberately came to my garden…
(Right, Aoi did say something like that even though she stopped midway through. Does Hikaru know?)
Koremitsu glanced to the side, and found his friend watching the verbal spat with a tentative look.
(For goodness sake…if you’re the harem prince, at least you should know how to settle a dispute between girls, right? What will happen if there’s a harem war going on?)
Just when Koremitsu was about to lower his shoulders.
Tsuyako suddenly lowered her tone.
The ferocious tone she used before had now changed to a calm, serious one,
“Hey, Miss Asai, do you not suppose that the premise behind all this is wrong? Hikaru’s portrait is missing, but why is it that you are here, and not Miss Aoi? Is the portrait not hers? Miss Aoi, Hikaru’s fiancee?”
“…Aoi has yet to arrive at school. She does not intend to tell you that the portrait is missing.”
Asai replied unhappily, giving a look that seemed to say ‘why do I have to answer this question?’
Tsuyako then asked with a mature expression,
“You have been protecting Miss Aoi all this while, Miss Asai, but deep inside your heart, what do you really think?”
“What do you mean?”
Asai’s eyes revealed a sharp glare.
“When you are protecting Miss Aoi, Miss Asai, you are doing it not for her sake, but for your own sake, right? Since you are very intelligent, you should be able to comprehend the feelings you have about her? To keep protecting her, to guard her for hurt, to prevent her from being sullied, you,”
Asai’s face looked as though it froze up.
There was anguish, shame and anxiety appearing from deep within the eyes.
“No Tsuyako. You must not say such things!”
Upon hearing Hikaru’s tense yell, Koremitsu panicked.
At that moment, Asai raised her right hand up high, ready to slap Tsuyako’s cheek.
A harp sound echoed, and Tsuyako staggered, her glossy, rich red hair scattered in an instance.
It was a merciless, proper slap.
Koremitsu darted into the room, and grabbed Asai by the arm.
“That’s enough, Asai! Enough already!”
Asai’s face contorted once she saw Koremitsu,and she narrowed her eyes sharply.
Tsuyako had her head lowered as she placed a hand on the cheek Asai slapped.
Honoka was at the door, watching Koremitsu and the rest with bated breath.
Hikar was embracing Tsuyako by the shoulders, ostensibly comforting her. However, Tsuyako did not realize, and Hikaru’s hands were entrenched into her shoulders.
“Slapping someone to the point of making your hand swollen? This isn’t something a girl should do, Asa.”
Koremitsu brought the red and swollen hand to Asai, causing the latter’s face to redden, and shake off Koremitsu’s hand immediately.
“I told you not to address me that.”
Asai then bit her lips, rage and shame appearing briefly before reverting back to her stoic look. She spoke sternly,
“…Miss Tsuyako, if anything is to happen the next time, even your identity as one of the Udates will help you. Please do remember this well.”
Asai walked away, and Honoka frantically stepped aside.
Tsuyako said as her hand remained on her cheek.
“It is time for you to tell the truth…Hikaru is no longer around.”
Her silent voice was filled with anguish; it seemed she was worried for Asai, even giving the latter an advice…
Behind Tsuyako, Hikaru lowered his eyebrows slightly.
Asai’s shoulders quivered as she stopped in her tracks, before she strode off again.
Once Asai passed by, Honoka hurried in,
“Upperclassman Tsuyako! Are you alright? Ahh, your face is completely red. I’ll get a wet handkerchief.”
Once she confirmed the condition of Tsuyako’s face, Honoka ran back to the corridor.
Koremitsu missed out on the chance to talk, and Tsuyako did not look at him as she continued to mutter to herself,
“I think I said…too much unnecessary things to Miss Asai. But I am concerned about her. Our attitudes towards Hikaru…are so contrasting yet so similar.”
(What does she mean…?)
So contrasting…so similar…
Hikaru probably understood here, but he merely lowered his eyes and listened in on Tsuyako’s words, looking really feeble.
Tsuyako too started to smile faintly.
This smile was the same as Hikaru’s whenever he was at a loss of what to do, and this caused Koremitsu to feel a throbbing pain.
“If I can only do what I advised, nobody would have to suffer…in the end, I am merely that brat with the red rusty looking hair.”
Hikaru lifted his head, staring at Tsuyako painfully. It seemed he was apologetic for being unable to relieve Tsuyako’s pain–dying while leaving her behind, and being unable to fulfill that promise.
Koremitsu too felt conflicted deep within.
Was dying and leaving those important to oneself such a tragic thing?
Honoka hurried back with a wet handkerchief, and placed it on Tsuyako’s cheek, taking care of the latter worriedly and caringly.
It seemed Tsuyako would calm down somewhat with Honoka taking such sincere care.
“Thank you, Miss Shikibu. You brought Mr Akagi here, did you not?”
“Eh, ah, well…Akagi’s crude, foul-mouthed, and is like a delinquent, but he can be reliable when the time comes for it. That’s why,”
Honoka’s voice got softer as she spoke.
Tsuyako smiled, seemingly watching a cute underclassman, and then showed that smile at Koremitsu.
“Oh yes, thank you for coming here to stop Miss Asai, Mr Akagi.”
“No, I didn’t do anything much. I was just standing by the sidelines.”
Koremitsu’s voice too got softer.
Tsuyako’s eyes narrowed amicably as she watched Honoka and Koremitsu fidget abashedly, and then spoke with a gentle, lonely tone,
“I wish to cease all club activities at this time. You two do not have to come by anymore.”
♢ ♢ ♢
“I was…angry at Upperclassman Tsuyako.”
It was break time.
Koremitsu and Honoka were standing at the fence surrounding the roof, and Hikaru floated gently behind Koremitsu.
Honoka stared at the fence as she continued to murmur,
“She did such a thing to you…I know I really don’t have the right to be angry, but even so, I just can’t feel good about it whenever I think about it…I really can’t help but feel that I can’t talk to her normally anymore. I can’t even attend any club activities…”
A cool breeze blew by, and Honoka clumsily pulled the straight hair strands resting on her cheeks to the back of her ears.
“But after school…I was a little concerned, so I snuck out to look at the club room. Upperclassman Tsuyako has been practicing alone…and she dropped the fan onto the floor quite a few times.”
“A few times…and she dropped it after picking it up…she looks unhappy as she picks it up, but she dropped it again once she started to dance. She looks extremely pale, her lips were bleeding because she bit them too hard…she’s really suffering.”
Through the bitterness in Honoka’s tone, Koremitsu imagined the sight of Tsuyako dropping the fan a few times, and felt his chest tighten
Behind him, Hikaru must have been feeling glum too.
“…SInce then, I’ve been sneaking by to watch, and this morning too…”
Honoka hesitated, and sank into deep thought.
She lowered her head, looked around the fence, and spoke up again,
“Did she do anything to Her Highness Aoi?”
“I don’t know.”
Perhaps Tsuyako did anything irritating to Aoi after becoming Rokujō. Tsuyako however did not deny this, and because of this, she might be feeling fearful and disgusted by the other person in her body, unable to dance because of the emotional turmoil.
But was it really the case?
Is there really an embodiment of the spider Rokujō within senpai?
Was the black haired woman he saw the previous day her?
Koremitsu felt a throbbing pain in his head, his temples stiffening.
Honoka lifted her head and stared at Koremitsu. Her eyes were flickering with sadness, and she spoke hoarsely,
“I think…I can understand Upperclassman Tsuyako’s reasons for doing this…if I were in the same situation as her, even if I know I’m the 3rd party, I’ll still be jealous of the other person…actually, I already did so.”
The terrified tone caused Koremitsu to be jolted within.
Within Honoka was an emotion of wanting to summon Rokujō…
Does every woman contain such conflicted, complicated feelings within them? Koremitsu did not know at all.
The secret Honoka let out caused Koremitsu to be slightly shocked.
(Women definitely aren’t just the weak, gentle beings they appear to be.)
Even the firm-willed, carefree looking Honoka would have a feeling of wanting to hurt others out of jealousy.
Such a matter was twirling within Koremitsu’s heart.
Honoka showed such a tragic expression as she softly muttered,
“…But, why…’now’…Lord Hikaru’s already dead…even if she continues to be jealous of Her Highness Aoi, it’s useless now. Or is it…that she did such things because…she feels lonely about his absence…”
Koremitsu too chewed upon the muttering Honoka just made.
(Yeah, why ‘now’?)
Why would Rokujō appear at this point even when Hikaru was dead?
—I really…do not know what to do…I am scared, worried..I cannot sleep at night…If this keeps up, I might end up destroying the flowers Hikaru treasures.
Koremitsu recalled the words Tsuyako said when she invited him to join the Japanese Dance club.
At this point, he knew that she was not saying it out of pretense, but from the bottom of her heart.
What exactly was the sort of Tsuyako’s ‘anxiety’?
The crux that caused Rokujō to appear.
As long as he discovered that.
As long as he could eliminate that.
The pain throbbing through his mind got more intense. Koremitsu felt that like him, Hikaru too must have been feeling anxious.
Honoka suddenly raised her voice.
She continued to look at Koremitsu with a pressing look.
“Regarding Upperclassman Tsuyako, I shall try to do my best to comfort her for the time being. Don’t put all the burden upon yourself.”
(Ah, is that so…?)
Honoka said such words worriedly after seeing Koremitsu frown and grit his teeth.
It was a little forced, but she still showed a smile to Koremitsu.
That smile, eked out with all her might, caused his heart to tighten.
He felt that Honoka was quite a good woman, to do her best for him out of her own thoughtfulness even when she was feeling conflicted herself. Hikaru did appraise her to be a purple Heliotrope blooming towards the sun, firm-willed and filled with love; clearly, he was accurate here.
“You’re supposedly angry with me, and now you’re helping me here; Thanks a lot, Shikibu.”
Koremitsu stared at Honoka right in the eyes as he said that.
If possible, he too wanted to show a light-hearted smile; whenever he tried to raise his lips however, his face would stiffen, and he would show a glaring, savage look.
Honoka shivered once she saw such a face…
And then, her expression lightened up somewhat.
She answered gently and shyly.
Koremitsu too felt abashed, sweet within.
He nodded slightly.
“Time to get back to the classroom.”
“Ah, you can go off first.”
“I’m going to the toilet first.”
Honoka showed a shocked look, but later answered,
“Right, got it.”
She seemed to realize that Koremitsu wanted to settle some private matters alone, and showed a slightly worried look as she turned her head back at the door, before smiling and leaving the roof.
Upon seeing such a scene, Koremitsu had an itchiness in his heart.
And then, he muttered,
“…What do you think of Shikibu’s words, Hikaru?”
Hikaru, floating behind Koremitsu, moved to the latter’s front, and answered with a serious look,
“I am wondering about the same thing too. Why would Rokujō appear at such a moment? If her jealousy at Miss Aoi was the cause, it should have appeared when I was alive. Also, I did mention before that she was not jealous of me dating other girls.”
“That’s a little too strange here, right? I don’t really understand women, but normally put, they do get jealous, right?”
I already did so. He recalled Honoka’s mutter, and said,
“Saiga also said that senpai once plucked the flowers at Aoi’s house when they were young, and placed a dead rat at her windowsill. She also said that she was jealous of Aoi before.”
–I too am jealous of those blissful girls who were treated kindly by their fiances, loved and accepted by the people around them.
She did mutter such words with a gloomy look. If only I had black hair…
Was that not referring to Aoi?
Hikaru’s eyebrows quivered slightly.
“That was before Tsuyako met me, during the time when she remained a shriveled body in the sturdy tree branches before she bloomed, before the buds even grew.”
Hikaru’s expression was hollow, yet his tone was full of adamance, almost to near belief.
(Hm…well, Hikaru does know senpai longer than I do….)
Tsuyako did say to Hikaru that she did not want to change lives with Aoi, that she did not want to know of him through another way. She was truly a firm-willed, dignified woman as she said that.
She never expressed regret over her choice.
And she would never compare herself with others.
(But what about ‘now’?)
The honest, optimistic eyes were shrouded in haze, becoming dim like the hazy moon.
Did she revert back to her old self because of Hikaru’s death?
To vent the loneliness and sadness they could not handle, humans would exert stronger emotions upon them, just as how Aoi lashed out at Hikaru’s funerary photo at the latter’s funeral to maintain an emotional balance…
Did Tsuyako try to replace the emptiness in her heart by hating Aoi?
Koremitsu pondered silently in frustration, and Hikaru muttered in a prayerful manner,
“It will be great if Tsuyako can get back to being herself and start to dance again.”
Koremitsu’s heart was pricked again.
(…He must be really anxious, being unable to cheer for senpai himself.)
Hikaru lowered his eyes, and silently muttered,
“Hey, Koremitsu…fulfilling a ‘promise’ is really a tough thing to do. I might have been a fool who never thought things through when I was alive. Only after my death did I realize…”
–When you dance, I will definitely be in the audience. I will applaud you there more than anyone else.
This was the promise Hikaru made with Tsuyako.
At that time, Hikaru must have said those words out of his own sincerity, with such clarity, cheerfulness in his voice and eyes. Back then, he must have believed that he would fulfill that problem.
“…I really am a fool who does not think things through.”
But at this point now, that was basically impossible…
If Hikaru could cry, he might even shed some tears.
The lowered sidelong face of his face was merely showing a rich, sore sadness.
“…A fool can only be cured when dead.”
“So…after you died, you should be a little less foolish here.”
Hikaru lifted his head, and smiled.
He, unable to cry, would smile like this when he was sad. Koremitsu too understood that the smile was showing the will and endurance he had when suffering.
At this point, Hikaru was frustrated yet anguished deep within–yet he wanted to smile all he could.
“Then, I shall be a little smarter here.”
“Just a little, about the size of a crack.”
“I do think you do not have to emphasize that.”
“You’ll get cocky immediately if that’s not the case.”
“There is no one more humble than I in front of a cute girl.”
“What’s that? Is that a joke? That’s a lame one coming from you.”
Both of them bickered as they returned back to the classroom.
♢ ♢ ♢
During the next break, an unexpected visitor came by.
“Come with me here, Akagi.”
Shungo Tōjō called for Koremitsu with a frown on his face, and dragged the latter to an empty classroom.
Koremitsu had assumed the other party would chide him over Tsuyako’s matter, but unexpectedly, the latter handed two tickets to him with a scowl,
“You, take these.”
Tōjō was typically courteous when addressing Koremitsu, but was being crude this time around. Leaving that aside, Koremitsu stared at the items in Tōjō’s hand, and frowned.
They were two entrance tickets to an art gallery.
“There’s an art renaissance exhibition this coming Saturday.”
“You’re asking me out? You don’t have any friends too?”
The veins were popping out of Tōjō’s temples.
“Who said I am going with you? What is the point of two men going to an art exhibition together?”
“…Am I wrong?”
“Ask Aoi out.”
Tōjō snorted with a peeved look, and one could tell he did not wish to say such words.
Beside them, Hikaru was saying something like ‘I do feel that it is a refreshing thing for two men to attend an art exhibition together’, and this time, he was muttering in shock.
Koremitsu too widened his eyes.
“Aoi, you say?”
Did he not say to never approach Aoi again?
The scowl intensified as wrinkles of frustrations appeared on Tōjō forehead.
“…Ever since you had that affair with Tsuyako at the garden party that evening, Hikaru’s older brother Kazuaki has been looking for Aoi. I head he has been chauffeuring her around because he was worried. Well, with Asai around, I do not think there would be any major incidents happening, and the foolish, incompetent Kazuaki might not have the guts to cause anything. However, there would be major issues for the son of the Mikados’ legal wife to be with Aoi, the daughter of the Saotomes.”
“The engagement between Kazuaki and Tsuyako has been dissolved, and as everyone knows, Aoi’s fiance, Hikaru fell into a river on a rainy night, dying in such a foolish manner.”
“…Foolish, he says…Mr Shungo still despises me after all.”
Hikaru too started to lose his nerve.
“If Kazuaki is to start becoming intimate with Aoi, the people around us will consider that Kazuaki and Aoi will be married in the future. In terms of pairing, there will not be any problems. Rather, if we consider the family pedigrees, they will be the most suited.”
(Aoi’s going to marry Hikaru’s older brother…!?)
Koremitsu recalled the fragile looking bespectacled youth that drove to school to fetch Aoi, but the impression he had of that youth was too vague; he could only remember the body build and the glasses.
(Then, what about Aoi?)
He recalled what Aoi said, that Hikaru had just passed away, and that she was unwilling to marry anyone else. His heart started to turn sour.
Unknowingly, the current situation had developed into an undesired direction for Aoi.
Hikaru too pondered with a serious look.
“Kazuaki is plain, but is not a bad person. He is too formal, trips over often, and will crash into some things.”
Koremitsu did not know whether Hikaru’s description was meant to praise or criticize the person himself.
The veins at Tōjō’s temples pulsated, and his eyes were glaring sharply at Koremitsu.
“There is a big, big, big problem with Kazuaki’s mother. My 3 older sisters are really a huge headache to deal with, but that mother is scarier than time. She is arrogant, prone to envy and rage, acts on impulse rather than reason, and would drag everything around her in. She always insists that she is correct, and if things do not work out, she would make a ruckus until she gets her way, even at the cost of her pride. Kazuaki’s mother has the blood of the Udates too, and even amongst the Udates, she is the strongest and worst of them all. There was once where she dumped a truck of horse manure onto her husband’s mistress house. How can I allow Aoi to marry into such a terrifying old hag’s household? It is easy to see that AOi will suffer.”
Tōjō prattled off with his eyebrows raised.
(This guy…gets very agitated whenever it involves Aoi…oh yeah, the mistress who had horse manure dumped onto her, was that Hikaru’s mother)
Koremitsu could not catch on to what the other person was saying, and even calmed down as a result. It was probably because as a commoner, he could not understand the matters of the two great families Udates, Saotomes, and their complicated relationships with Hikaru’s family.
To him, the concept of being betrothed before the coming of age was an alien concept to him.
“Aoi has been looking lethargic ever since she saw you have that shameless kiss with Tsuyako, and now with the recent despicable cases of bullying, she let down her guard here. Normally, Aoi would clearly refuse Kazuaki’s invitations to fetch her, and because of your betrayal, she might even think that she was betrayed by Hikaru again. It looks like she is still upset over that matter, and may have sealed her heart and listened to those around her blankly.”
Upon hearing such a chiding, Koremitsu too felt entwined by his own guilt, for he too was at fault.
Tōjō again frowned, showed a glum look as he frowned for a while, and stuffed the tickets into Koremitsu’s hand.
“To be honest, I really do not wish that you make amends with Aoi. You bragged that you would not let Tsuyako hurt Aoi, but you are still unable to do things even at this point. Such a useless man.”
“However, if this keeps up, the engagement between Kazuaki and Aoi will be unavoidable. Aoi might even accept it in self-defeat, and that is worse than being a nun. Also, I am worried that after seeing that dazzling fool of a harem prince Hikaru, who only had looks going for him, she would not have a higher impression on men, and would live in the shadow of Hikaru. Leaving aside Hikaru’s brain and personality of wanting to flirt around, I do not suppose there is any other man who had the conditions any woman would want when it comes to love. I do not know what methods you used to win her heart when you are so completely different from Hikaru; thought I felt there is a need to stop you, I do think that since there is Kazuaki’s matter to deal with, letting you through might be for the better. After interacting with a bastard like you, her ability to judge characters would have fallen off the scales; perhaps she might be able to marry a decent man the next time.”
“Hey, what do you mean by fallen off the scales here!?”
Koremitsu yelled as he clutched at the tickets in his hands, and beside him, Hikaru spoke with a pensive look.
“…That somehow makes sense.”
Koremitsu inadvertently had the thought of wanting to punch Hikaru, but even if he did so, the fist would only pass through the latter’s body.
Without waiting for Koremitsu’s reply, Tōjō pointed at the former’s nose with uppity and said,
“Listen you. What you have to do now, you bastard,is that you are to bring Aoi out to the art exhibition and bring her away from Kazuaki. Later, make sure not to hurt her as you vanish slowly from her sights. It will be better if she ends up leaving you out of fatigue, embarrassment or annoyance.”
“Aren’t you being too cruel here!? Those aren’t humane words, alright!!”
“Not good. Class is starting. You should hurry back to your own class too, you bastard. Do not sell the tickets. You must invite Aoi out! You hear me? You must invite her out. This is a promise between men.”
Tōjō hollered as he ignored the fuming Koremitsu, and frantically scurried off. Once class started, he must have combed his unkempt hair neatly, tidied the creases on his shirt, lifted his head, kept his chin back, and sat back at his seat with his back straightened.
“Since when did we have a promise?”
Koremitsu groaned as he stared at the art gallery tickets in his hand. Beside him, Hikaru mumbled,
“Mr Shungo…is someone who becomes irrational whenever Miss Aoi gets involved after all.”