It was a time where the vestiges of sunset rays dyed the air golden, and Asai, having changed into comfortable clothes for moving about and thick boots for trekking, came to a hill owned by the Mikados with Koremitsu.
This was the place where Asai abandoned Koremitsu behind, and she was thus inadvertently worried as to whether he would do the same thing back to her and leave her behind at this place.
But even if he did not abandon her in such a place, she would never have considered going out alone with such a savage-eyed, barbaric man like Koremitsu when the sun was about to set. Until yesterday, that is.
She actually followed Koremitsu obediently, whom she so hated and despised just a while back.
“Now then, let’s start looking for Tsuchinokos, and then we’re going to the river to fish for kappas, exchange messages with UFOs, and as for the snowman. Maybe they’re hiding in a nest cuddling their ice pillows since it’s summer. Anyway, let’s start looking.”
Koremitsu looked down at a copy of his schedule and he spoke with a deadpan look.
(Why is it that I am doing such a foolish thing with him?)
—You promised Hikaru, didn’t you! I’ll fulfill it on his behalf.
Upon hearing those words, Asai had the impulse to push him down a tall building.
(It is supposedly impossible for me to recognize this wild dog as Hikaru’s representative…)
—First, it is going to be the Tsuchinokos after all!
Asai recalled the summer vacation where she made the promise to go adventuring with Hikaru, recalling his dazzling cheeks the cheerful voice in her mind, and her chest tightened, her mind confounded.
—After that, we are going fishing for kappas at the river! We need to bring lots of cucumbers then.
—How do snowmen spend the summer? Do they make an ice pillow using cooler and spend all day sleeping?
Asai handed a soap bubble blowing straw over, and he grinned heartily. That was an expression as adorable as an angel.
Aoi stared at Hikaru, her face flushed red, and when Hikaru tilted his head skeptically, she suddenly puffed her cheeks and turned her head aside. Perhaps she was unwilling to admit that she was mesmerized by Hikaru when she saw him.
And from that day on, Asai, Aoi and Hikaru were always playing together.
Whenever Aoi went to Hikaru’s house to play, she would definitely invite Asai along. Aoi herself wanted to play with Hikaru, but she was too ashamed to admit this ‘Asa wants to go to Hikaru’s place to play, and I want to play with Asa, so I have no choice’, blushing red as she insisted on this with all her mind.
Asai was astounded to see Aoi like this.
It was clear for all to see that Aoi was infatuated with Hikaru.
And she was not the only one. The other girls too were infatuated with him, mesmerized by him.
During the school arts festival, Hikaru was set to be the prince in Cinderella, and so most of the girls in the girls recommended themselves to be Cinderella. After a loud ruckus, the drama act became a comedy involving a prince and 13 Cinderellas.
And the scene of the dance hall became 13 Cinderellas surrounding one prince. Asai coldly watched the dancing girls who were dressed like flowers, and quietly made up her mind that she would not be one of them.
Even if all the girls were to fall in love with Hikaru, she definitely would never fall in love with him
However, perhaps she, who had such thoughts all this while, may have loved Hikaru after all.
—Don’t you want to be Hikaru’s ‘most beloved’?
And Koremitsu’s hypothesis was most likely correct.
There was an emotion of wanting to be Hikaru’s most beloved, the feeling of wanting to be Hikaru’s lover deep within her heart.
But if this were to keep up, she too would end up like those girls.
And that was why she became so cold and aloof, pretending to be chaste with regards to love.
Whenever she saw Aoi fret, furious and depressed over Hikaru’s philandering, Asai inadvertently found herself thinking about how foolish Aoi was. Perhaps however, she was jealous of Aoi.
That she was jealous of Aoi’s cute devotedness, that she was able to love Hikaru, that she was betrothed to marry Hikaru one day.
That whenever Aoi pouted and turned her blushing face aside, Hikaru was always there to pacify her gently with his sweet expression, and whenever she saw such a mood, her chest was prickling—she did not want to recognize that, and that was why she secretly despised Aoi for being a spoilt princess who knew nothing of the ways of the world to maintain the balance of emotions in her heart.
She was never as petite and cute as Aoi all this while, and she never wanted to be be a girl every single person doted so much that they would protect her.
And so, the dream she had when she was young was to be an adventurer.
Her belief in Santa Claus was betrayed, but there was many, many mysteries in this world that one would get excited over. When she was young, she wanted to go out and observe with her own eyes, personally investigate, and unravel all those mysteries.
Her parents giving disapproving frowns, saying that she was being unbecoming of a girl.
“There are many worms in the hills, and the kappas are slippery and disgusting. I think I would rather stay at home to draw after all.”
Aoi too had the same view, but Hikaru did not laugh at her,
When summer comes, let us look for the Tsuchinokos, fish for kappas, and play with the snowmen. He said this to her, and because of these words, she added this appointment in her schedule.
Yes. Asai was not hoping to be assisted like a princess being saved and protected by a prince in fairy tales.
What she was hoping was…
“I’ll go with you until the very end.”
A sudden gruff, powerful voice suddenly rang, pulling Asai back from the past to reality.
The boy with bright red hair and sharp stare said sullenly as he was was basked under the red sunset. One had to wonder if his entire face was red, including the nose, because of the sunset, or out of bashfulness.
—Let us go together, Asa.
Hikaru’s words again overlapped with his, and that clear, innocent voice entered Asai’s ears like a refreshing, rustling breeze blowing in.
Hikaru’s words, and Koremitsu’s words, both riveted Asai’s heart.
“Hey, where exactly do Tsuchinokos live in? In the grass? On the trees? Or in the caves?”
“How am I supposed to know about that?”
“Then investigate beforehand, model student.”
“You are the one who brought me here so abruptly!”
“Well, it’s fine. Let’s just look for it however we like.”
“What do you mean like that? Are you saying that you are fulfilling Hikaru’s promise with just a nonchalant attitude?”
“Ahh whatever, let’s get serious! We’re looking for Tsuchinokos—something seemed to be slithering down there.”
“We’re in the hills. There has to be snakes.”
“No, it seems to be something a little flatter.”
“How is possible to find Tsuchinokos so easily? That is something that born out of imagination after all. There is no way such a thing exists in reality—”
“Woah! It’s moving again! It really looks like something with a flat belly.”
“How stubborn you are. Tsuchinokos—”
“If you’re sure they don’t exist, catch them first just to make sure. Hey, go over there and chase it from over there to me.”
“I do not remember agreeing to that—hey, wait.”
Before she realized it, Asai found herself running on the steep hill.
It was a good thing that she had changed her footwear before this, but on a deeper thought, she wondered what exactly was she doing, and was speechless.
She, together with Koremitsu, chased after the creature that was moving at quickly, but accidentally let it slip away, and felt bitter about it. Then, she heard the flowing sounds of the river, and walked towards there. Koremitsu tied the cucumber he brought to a twig, and dangled it over the water.
“Say, why do kappas like cucumbers?”
—Hey, Asa, why do kappas like cucumbers?
“Cucumbers are necessary items for offerings to the water god, so there is the rumor that kappas like cucumbers.”
The sunset faded past the horizon, and the sky got darker. Asai placed a torchlight. The orange light shone bright upon the profile of Koremitsu Akagi as the latter continued to dangle his bait and fish.
“Ehh, you know quite a lot.”
—Asa, you really are smart.
For some reason, Hikaru’s face could be seen on Koremitsu’s rough, gruff sidelong face.
Whenever Asai saw Hikaru’s shadow on Koremitsu, her heart would pulsate shrilly, her heart felt bitter, ready to burst into tears.
This finally caused her to realize the reason why Aoi, ever the fastidious one who hated men, to like Koremitsu.
Hikaru and him were so completely different, yet they were so similar.
His words, his actions, and his expression that would soften from time to time evoked the voice and profile of Hikaru.
—Asa, I wish to have a friend.
That was one thing Hikaru yearned for so much.
—Actually, I want to play with boys too. I wonder what kind of boy will be friends with me.
At that moment, Hikaru was giving her an admiring look as he narrowed his eyes and spoke up.
‘I might say that it’s because you’re too much of a playboy. You should get a friend who is prudent’, and when she said this so coldly to him, it was to hide the dissatisfaction in her heart.
The water surface with the reel poking out quivered and was glittering with light.
“Yo, lift your head and look.”
Koremitsu called out , and lifted his head as high as he could, looking up.
Asai too was influenced as she lifted her head.
And then, appearing in front of her was a sky filled with stars!
They blinked in unison amidst the ink-like darkness like sands of light.
There was Vega of the Lyra Constellation, Altair of the Aquila Constellation, and Deneb of the Cygnus Constellation.
Yes, that was the Summer Triangle.
Vega was The Weaving Princes
And Altair was the Cow Herder.
In the middle of the two stars was a belt of stars. The stars were twinkling, clustered together, forming a stroke in space.
“Amazing! That’s the Milky Way, right?”
And Koremitsu was showing his excitement beside her.
—Ah yes! Let us see the Milky Way, Asa!
Was the sky so vast?
Were the stars so dazzling?
Asai felt as if the world was reverted back to her childhood, filled with exhilarating mysteries, and the scenery riveted her chest, rendering her breathless.
“Alright, let’s call for aliens!”
“What are you saying now?”
“Heey!!! Aliens! Come here now!!”
“Stop it already! What happens if another person hears you?”
“There are three people here though.”
“Well, no, just you and me, Saiga.”
“Y-you are right.”
“Heey! Aliens!!! Come fishing for kappas with us!”
“The kappas will run away if you yell that loud!”
“You’re noisy, yapping away like that. Come on now, you don’t have to be so shy, Asa. Just yell all you want. Don’t you want to contact aliens and ride UFOs?”
“Do not call me Asa! If we want to exchange messages with aliens, we need to call for them through telepathy.”
“Then, use that telepathy.”
“Do not make it sound that easy. Your soul has to be one with your mind. Even God cannot do it with an uncouth wild dog howling out loud.”
“Alright then, I’ll just shut up. I won’t disturb you then, so just do it.”
“Have you done it yet?”
“You cannot keep quiet for more than 30 seconds!?”
“Because you had your eyes closed, looking so serious. Anyone would have been worried.”
“Did you not tell me to communicate with aliens through my soul.”
“Ah, so you actually did it?”
And Koremitsu patted a speechless Asai on her back.
“Very good, you finally have the enthusiasm. If you’re calling for it so passionately, maybe a UFO will really come here.”
(Why are you being so over-familiar with me?)
Her heart felt ticklish, and she suddenly turned her face away.
“Do…you believe in aliens, kappas, tsuchinokos and such?”
Koremitsu curled his lips and pondered for a while, before saying,
“Till just a while back, I didn’t believe in them. Recently though, I’m starting to feel that there are strange things occurring on this world…or rather, I guess it might be interesting to think about it. That’s why I believe in things like kappas, tsuchinokos, aliens—and ghosts.”
Asai could sense that there was emphasis in the word ‘ghost’ when Koremitsu said it. He then continued in a mocking tone,
“In that case, maybe the aliens themselves are originally Earthlings! Their souls floated to space after they died, and then they watch the place where they live from space.”
In that case, did Hikaru go to space after all?
Perhaps Hikaru was in the midst of this starry night sky, watching the Earth from somewhere.
Koremitsu’s tone and expression looked so optimistic, but when Asai thought of Hikaru’s radiant smile, a suffocating breath rose up her throat.
Not willing to reveal her emotions to Koremitsu, Asai sealed her lips tightly, and pretended to focus on fishing for kappas.
Koremitsu did not speak to Asai after that, perhaps because he saw through her after all, and remained silent while dangling his reel onto the water surface.
Though he looked so gruff, so dim-witted, it seemed he was able to understand a person’s emotions so acutely. This caused Asai to be reminded of Hikaru, causing her to falter further.
(Is he really Hikaru’s friend…?)
It was something Hikaru really yearned.
A friend he could enjoy with, a person he could trust, a person he could share help with.
(So Hikaru left my matters to him too?)
Asai tried to accept this idea, and in the end, felt repulsed and disgusted by it.
However, Asai was not angry at the fact that they were beside a creek in the forested hills with the Summer Triangle and the Milky Way spread wide above them. The owls hooting being heard, the duo dangling their reels in silence, bickering over trivial matters from time to time; she found it inexplicable instead, and a warm sense of embarrassment arose in her.
(Did Hikaru and him spend such their time together like this…?)
♢ ♢ ♢
After an inconsequential verbal fight, Koremitsu glanced aside slightly to peek at Asai while the she continued to fish for kappa, her side face looking embarrassed and frustrated, and he felt inexplicably relieved within.
(I actually don’t feel annoyed after arguing with Saiga.)
He also felt it was refreshing and interesting that he was actually fishing with her in the middle of the night, arguing about trivial matters.
Asai was a woman who was not terrified of the night forest, and also a woman braver than anyone, able to fish for kappas with her back straight.
She was a reliable woman who granted comfort to those with her.
She was a feisty woman.
She was an intelligent woman.
She was a woman with frigid eyes.
And Koremitsu was seeing her charms one by one.
(Is this the real ‘Asa’?)
Koremitsu asked quietly with his eyes to Hikaru, seated on the other side of Asai, cupping his knees as he watched Koremitsu and Asai with a delighted look.
And Hikaru answered with a gentle, tender look.
That is correct, Koremitsu.
Asa is really an amazing person.
♢ ♢ ♢
The still darkened sky was gradually turning a blue hue, and as the stars gradually entranced, Koremitsu stood up,
“Come with me, Asa. There’s a message from Hikaru for you to see.”
“Do not call me Asa—”
She insisted, but before she could finish her words, Koremitsu was already walking far in front, yelling,
“Hey, hurry up. Or else you’re going to miss it!”
(Such a rude man is Hikaru’s friend? There has to be a mistake somewhere. When did Hikaru leave the message behind? It surely is just a lot of hot air.)
She thought as she muttered some wretched words in her heart, yet continued to pursue Koremitsu with all her might.
Koremitsu continued through the dark forest, holding a torchlight to light his path, pushing the plants aside as he continued with light steps. It was the first time he entered the Mikados’ hill, but one had to wonder why he was able to continue walking without hesitation.
Feeling vexed within, Asai caught up to Koremitsu and walked by his side, sighing and raising her shoulders jauntily. Upon seeing her like this, Koremitsu gave a mischievous look
Asai glared at him, and he became flustered.
“If you have something to say, just say it to me.”
“But if I do so, you will be angry.”
“Are you thinking of something that will make me angry?”
“See, aren’t you angry now?”
Koremitsu continued forward as he grumbled about her troublesome personality.
And then, he noted bluntly,
“The way you were panting with your face red makes you look like a brat.”
Asai’s face was searing red, and just when she wanted to refute Koremitsu,
“Great, we made it on time.”
Koremitsu sounded rather cheerful.
The path shrouded by the greenery opened wide, like the peak of a mountain they had climbed onto. The shallow darkness that continued to linger above them—was gradually revealing the color of dawn Appearing in their sights was a meandering path, a field of Morning Glories.
The Morning Glories were spreading their refreshing green leaves, wrapping their vines on the surrounding trees, and the tiny flower petals, once tightly shut, were waiting nervously for dawn to arrive.
And so, they slowly—
The flower petals slowly loosened its bent, concealed petals in this world of darkness—in this world that was approaching the world of dawn—loosening, opening, blooming.
—The Morning Glory buds are about to bloom, are they not?
Hikaru had his knees bent, his hands on his head as he watched with enthusiasm the Morning Glories Asai bought to record her observation diary for summer vacation.
The duo had promised that when the petals opened, they would go look for tsuchinokos and kappas.
—When the Morning Glories bloom, that is the beginning of our adventure.
But on the day they agreed to see the Morning Glories bloom together, Hikaru was locked in the school storage room, and was unable to arrive at Asai’s house.
—Sorry, Asa. The Morning Glories withered.
Hikaru, who was thoroughly battered and feeble, was left smiling forlornly.
Hikaru, who was unable to cry.
Hikaru, who was never to be blessed when he was born.
And from that moment onwards, Asai dedicated her all to him.
She promised him that she would never ever cry, and swore in her heart never to allow anyone else hurt Hikaru.
And Asai slowly grew up, forgetting all about the initial promise, only remembering the last one.
—If Hikaru will not cry, I shall not cry either.
The karma Hikaru bore when he was born was steep, and as a child, there was a limit to what Asai herself could do. Even so, she swore never to cry, wanting to at least share the pain with him.
(Hikaru…I wanted to be your close friend, the one who understood you the most, to protect your heart. You are not a child undeserving of being born, and I definitely will not allow anyone to say it. I am the only who knows about your purity, your anguish, your suffering. This is what I thought, and thus—I shall never fall in love with you.)
And so, for Hikaru’s sake, she gave up her dreams, restrained her heart, denied her womanhood, and set lofty goals for herself.
However, Hikaru always remembered the initial promise he had with her, the promise she had long forgotten.
She valued Hikaru greatly in her heart.
She valued the promise with Hikaru greatly.
And Hikaru too was the same!
Asai’s thoughts were not simply that straightforward.
The Morning Glories gradually bloomed, opening their soft silky smooth round petals.
The radiant blue, the noble purple, the refreshing sky blue.
And the cute pink.
There were many flower buds in the midst of this refreshing morning air, having lived through many years, finally blooming in front of Asai.
A rich, sweet voice whispered at Asai’s ears as the her chest throbbed, breathless as she watched on.
—When the Morning Glory flowers bloom, that will be the start of our adventure.
That was when Hikaru was still young.
And the grown-up Hikaru’s voice overlapped and merged with it.
—This is our ‘start’, Asa.
—When the Morning Glory flowers bloom, that will be the start of our adventure.
—The Morning Glories have bloom. Let us look for tsuchinokos! Fish for kappas! Exchange messages with aliens!
—This is already enough, Asa. Our promise shall be fulfilled by my friend here. So Asa, it is time for a new beginning.
The stars slowly vanished, and the world gradually brightened.
Appearing in the distance was Hikaru’s smile.
The wild, vibrant Morning Glory flowers were spread wide, waiting impatiently for dawn to arrive.
And beside them was a red-haired, sharp-eyed youth, standing with his back slouched slightly, his lips sealed as he gave a grim look.
Had conveyed Hikaru’s heart to her.
He told her that the dreams she had was picked up by Hikaru, treasured and protected within Hikaru.
—Thank you for accompanying me till this day. I shall be heading off alone first; you are free now, Asa.
—Go to the place where you want to go, Asa!
—This is your ‘start’, Asa.
—Go out there and go on an adventure!
—You have to live for your own future, Asa!
—That is my wish.
After a while, the dazzling sun rays were shining on her, and before she realized it, there was a tinge of warmth on her face.
That was the first time she shed a tear, ever since she swore never to cry.
Dazzling. The sun was ever so dazzling, yet the Morning Glories looked so blurry, and Koremitsu’s face too looked blurred; the acute pain in her heart, the clinging sense of guilt all flowed out along with the tears she shed.
Perhaps Hikaru remembered her words that boys and girls could not be friends when they were young children.
If only I can be friends with you, Asa. At that time, when Hikaru said so in such an innocent manner, Asai was taken aback, and told him ‘no way’..
But actually, Asai was really hoping for something so much her chest was ostensibly exploding.
Perhaps that was the beginning of the moment when she was closest to Hikaru, when she drew a line where she could not cross over.
And Hikaru probably hoped for a friend who did not draw a line against him, one he could share thoughts with, and one he could walk with when he was troubled.
The gender of that friend did not matter.
Right, just like Koremitsu.
“So…you conveyed Hikaru’s message to me as his friend.”
Asai spoke with a hoarse voice.
And Koremitsu answered with a serious look.
The moment Asai whispered these words, she looked away, seemingly faltering.
He was gruff, uncouth..yet kind-hearted within, had an iron-willed heart. And he, being such a person, was Hikaru’s friend…the representative conveying Hikaru’s thoughts.
Having been brought here to this forest, they did not find kappas or tsuchinokos, but they saw lots of different things.
The encounter that day with Hikaru
The encounter that day when she met him.
She could finally see the Morning Glory flowers bloom.
And the childhood Hikaru could be seen smiling cheerfully on the other end of the gradually brightening sky.
Ever since Hikaru’s death, Asai’s mind was always filled with images of Hikaru, always looking pale with despair, suffering, anguished. Whenever she thought of doing something for him, his face would look more dreary.
At this point, the young Hikaru in Asai’s heart, and the grown up Hikaru, were finally smiling at her.
—He is my friend, Asa.
And Asai took a large gulp of the cool morning air, welcoming her younger self in her heart as she bade farewell to the deceased Hikaru.
♢ ♢ ♢
Asa here is my ‘guardian’, Koremitsu.
You are saying that it is useless of me to have a woman be my ‘guardian’? Please do not say that to me with such a disgusted look.
There should be a firm-willed, sacred existence within your heart too.
When I was younger, I was always ostracized by the boys, never being able to make a single male friend. I was also always given curious, aloof looks. The fact that Asa and Miss Aoi were with me was undoubtedly a wonderful thing to me. This is the one aspect that made me thoroughly grateful to God.
I really thank God for having Asa be my cousin.
I really thank God for letting Asa and Miss Aoi be on such good terms.
I really thank God for having them accept me.
All of these are truly wonderful, beautiful coincidences.
If I had only met Asai and Miss Aoi as the two girls in my life, I probably would not be called a harem prince, and could have possibly lived on blissfully like this.
Living every single day with my fiancee Miss Aoi and the stern, yet reliable cousin, Asa, the three of us living happily together every single day.
I just care about myself, you say? Please do not glare at me so angrily. I know it is simply wishful thinking on my part.
But perhaps this may be what Asa wanted herself after all…
If not, there would be no way Asa would look down on Miss Aoi and stay by her side, watching over her. Asa is very clumsy herself, and she has to find a reason if she wishes to be on good terms with someone else.
I suppose the reason Asa would not fall in love in me is because she definitely wishes to maintain the relationship the three of us have.
Asa and I have an intimate, yet tense relationship.
We think of each other as our ‘valuable partners’, and yet we regulated ourselves strictly to prevent it from developing sweet feelings.
We shall always look at each other from each side of the border that shall not be crossed, looking at each other’s existence and souls.
But no matter how much we understood each other, we definitely shall never cross that line and embrace each other.
And so, Asa kept her distance from me, watching over me. In a certain sense, this is a deeper bond than that of lovers.
And even if I died, Asa shall remain the same.
She would sacrifice her future to stand at the top of the Mikados, all to protect my secret.
She knew how much she would suffer, how much of a burden it would be, and yet she accepted all of my sins. This is all to redeem me.
Asa is strong, wise and stubborn, and it probably is unlikely to change her thinking.
Seeing you and her squabble, I was wondering that perhaps you would be the one to change Asa’s stubborn ideas. Regarding this, I have hopes over it.
You are the first boy of a similar age who did not submit to her, and took her head on.
The words you wrote moved the hearts of Asa and Madam Orime—the two ‘Asagao Princesses’, giving them a new leash of life.
At that moment, my heart was erratic, and when I showed you an unbecoming sight of myself, it was you lashing out that pulled me back in.
Looking at it, you gallantly saved three people at that moment.
The second happiness I have in my life is being friends to you.
After seeing your words, I too realized that my journey is still continuing, and I am on the way.
This Earth is just one stop of my journey.
So after finishing all that I have to complete in this world, I shall move on to the next destination.
And before I leave this heartrending, adorable Earth for my journey, allow me to write a long, long story with you.
It is regarding that secret of mine.
And I wish that my hero, my best friend, will listen to me.
Yes, soon after—