The next day,
Koremitsu’s table was still surrounded with the usual buzz.
“Akagi, I heard that the most important thing in giving birth is the breathing! If the correct breathing technique is mastered, the kid will follow suit and come out! Someone uploaded the video onto the internet. I’ll send the address to you.”
“M-M-M-Mr. Akagi, they do sell something called a diaper cake in a baby shop. I bought one thinking that I had to show you this. Look, the towels, diapers and underwear are all packaged in a cake decoration, very cute.”
Honoka and Michiru were holding baby magazines and childbirth supplies, taking turns to talk to Koremitsu. Also, even the second year Tsuyako was in Koremitsu’s classroom.
“Hey, I do think this is good as a design for the baby cot. While there is some Japanese flair added, do you not think it has a modern feel to it? This one here is decorated by Italian lace; I really have a hard time picking. Which one do you think is better, Mr. Akagi?”
Honoka and Michiru were already attracting a lot of attention, and with a glamorous, stupendous beauty like Tsuyako beside Koremitsu, it attracted a lot more attention at this point.
The sight was akin to a garden of flowers suddenly popping out around Koremitsu.
“What’s that? A harem?”
“I think I saw that before…like when Mikado was still alive.”
“The harem delinquent, huh?”
There were murmurs from all around.
(Don’t give me such a weird nickname here!)
Koremitsu hollered in his heart.
For some reason however, Hikaru was dressed in the clothing of a Persian Prince, floating in the air, looking moved as he said,
“Thank you all for thinking so much about my child.”
Koremitsu did hear the depressing words from Koharu the previous day, but with the girls surrounding him, he was kept so busy that he did not have the time to brood over it.
(Seriously, these guys…)
Though he was grimacing on the surface, there appeared some form of relief from somewhere in his heart.
He suddenly spotted Aoi standing at the entrance of the classroom.
Perhaps Aoi came to see Koremitsu, worried about Hikaru’s child. She looked vexed and tentative as she peeked into the classroom, and looked flustered as she opened and closed her lips over and over again.
Aoi had been standing a little distant from Koremitsu over the past few days, and never once approached him.
On this day too, the moment she met Koremitsu in the eyes, her shoulders would jump slightly, and she would frantically turn her head aside, scampering off.
(That’s a normal reaction, I guess…?)
It probably was difficult for Aoi to be like Tsuyako, sincerely delighted that the boy she loved would have a child soon.
Hikaru too looked on docilely as he whispered in anguish,
“Miss Aoi has a tendency for purity, so she probably is angry, hurt now. If I were still alive, perhaps she would ignore me for at least a year or so…”
After school, Koremitsu again paid a visit to Sora’s apartment. There was a sweet, refreshing fragrance of green tea and grapefruit drifting in this neat and tidy room, giving one a sense of comfort and modesty. He spent the time looking at Sora, who continue to knit clothes, and sometimes even make paprika marinade.
Whenever he thought about Aoi, he would feel guilty about being together with Sora like this.
And intertwined in his thoughts were the pricks of his already remarried mother, the thoughts he was unable to express in words.
“Sora, you really don’t have any wishes you want fulfilled?”
Sora immediately answered without hesitation.
“There has to be 1 or 2 of them. Like for example, live in a more spacious, luxurious house, or take a luxury cruise on a trip or something. Ah, I don’t have enough money to pay for that if these are what you’re thinking. If you’re really thinking about that, I-I’ll definitely think of something.”
Sora cheerfully looked back at Koremitsu, who seemed to have taken the metaphor to the literal extreme, the smile in her eyes akin to one watching over a child with the wish ‘I want to be the president when I grow up’.
(Ugh, she’s not taking my words serious here.)
And a mesmerizing alto voice entered a blushing Koremitsu’s ears.
“It takes a lot of effort to clean up a house that’s too big, and I get seasick easily, so I’ll pass on the house and cruise.”
“I-in that case, how about eating lots of what you like and wearing beautiful dresses or something?”
“If I eat a lot of what I like, I’ll end up disliking it in the end. While pretty dresses are nice to look at, it definitely isn’t convenient to move in them if I do wear them.”
“Then, how about doing nothing for a day? I’ll do all the housework that day.”
“Koremitsu, that is a privilege for Mother’s day.”
And Hikaru chimed in.
“Fo-forget I said that.”
Koremitsu blurted in a panic, and Sora chortled.
And while Koremitsu was left embarrassed,
“Thanks for thinking for my sake here. You really are a good kid, Mr. Akagi.”
She spoke with a motherly tone.
This left Koremitsu’s face sizzling more and more, and he was rendered speechless.
“This is to be expected, Koremitsu. Even I was treated like a child by Sora here.”
(Wait, will anyone do such things to a kid!?)
Koremitsu retorted quietly, looking very remorseful.
In this silent room, the cicadas could be heard chirping.
“It’s been lively nowadays too…”
Sora looked out of the window, muttering.
It wasn’t a particularly interesting topic to talk about, but Koremitsu was relieved,
“When I was young, I did look for the shed skins of cicadas…in the summer.”
And he blurted.
At that instance, Sora’s eyes became melancholic.
“What happened to the shed skin?”
“I put it in a plastic bag and left it on the table, but a breeze unexpectedly blew it to the floor, and I stepped on it accidentally, crushing it.”
“Is that so…that’s a pity.”
There was a tinge of loneliness in those words.
The mole under the eye seemed to become a tear.
Koremitsu too became gloomy as he recalled how he gathered the shed skin, and remained silent.
Both of them remained silent until the cicadas could no longer be heard.
“I’ll come by tomorrow.”
Koremitsu told Sora just as he was about to head back.
“Please don’t make promises. I really dislike making promises.”
She said with a phlegmatic voice.
While on the way back.
The sun continued to set as Koremitsu walked through the narrow alleys between the houses, his emotions clearly bleak.
From beside, Hikaru whispered,
“…Sora’s reaction was a little strange when you talked about cicadas.”
“You too…have bad memories about cicadas, do you not?”
And while Hikaru expressed his worry, Koremitsu brusquely answered,
“It’s nothing…it’s just like what I told Sora. I gathered the shed skins, but they were accidentally crushed , that’s all.”
However, the one who accidentally crushed the skins was not Koremitsu, but his own mother. After that, his mother merely continued to weep and apologize to Koremitsu, “I’m really sorry, Mitsu”, just like that…
(Even till now, I still feel hurt whenever I think about that person. That’s definitely because I still haven’t given up hope, I guess.)
He continued to hope that the mother who abandoned her child still had that little bit of love for him.
—I’m really sorry, Mitsu
The mother who was always sobbing.
If he could have smiled cheerfully, perhaps his mother would be able to stop weeping.
And thinking that, Koremitsu tried his best to show a smile, trying his best to raise his lips. All he showed however were bloodshot eyes, a stiff face, and he was unable to smile.
Koremitsu never smiled again ever since his mother left him.
And he could not smile.
“Hikaru…your mom told you to ‘keep smiling’, right?”
Koremitsu asked Hikaru with a deep whisper, and Hikaru answered with a forlorn, clear voice,
“Yes…she told me that I could be loved by everyone if I could do this, that I would not be alone.”
—Hikaru, you have to keep smiling no matter what.
If you do that, everyone will love you.
If anyone does anything bad to you, fill your heart with love and smile back
She repeated these tender words to the young Hikaru over and over again
And just as Koremitsu could not smile, so Hikaru became a boy who could not cry.
Hikaru’s sickly mother already knew that her end was nigh, and out of her love for her son, she imparted these teachings to Hikaru, who was to be left alone on this world.
—What does it feel like to let the tears flow?
Koremitsu recalled the expectant tone Hikaru used to ask and the lukewarm expression he used when he quietly muttered this, his heart wincing.
The atmosphere brimming towards Autumn, the nights would quickly become frigid and forlorn. The crimson sunset flaring just a while back was gradually dimming.
“…Was your mom someone who always smiled?”
“I suppose…my mother was my father’s mistress, and his legitimate wife came looking for trouble, so mother must have been suffering…I do not recall mother showing any face other than a smile however.”
Hikaru’s expression, even his lips, were smiling as he talked about his mother. However, his sidelong face looked as tragic as ever.
Will the day when I can smile come?
Will the day when this guy can cry come?
(How exactly does it feel to smile?)
Koremitsu recalled the girls around him who had the cheerful smiles,Shioriko, Tsuyako and Honoka, and inadvertently started to wince within.
(Hm? Who’s that guy?)
At this moment, Koremitsu noticed a little boy of 4th, 5th grade standing in front of his door, fidgeting uncomfortably as he looked around Koremitsu’s house.
(An elementary school kid…? Shiiko’s acquaintance?)
Koremitsu called out, and the boy jolted in shock before turning around.
His hair and clothes were tidy, and it seemed he was a well raised child. He had a cute and wise face, but the lips pouting due to tension gave a conceited impression.
At the same time, Koremitsu seemed to have an impression of seeing the child before, curious that the boy resembled someone he knew.
And the boy was utterly terrified to have a savage looking red haired high school student talk to him.
To hide that little insecurity, his lips curled and winced more than before.
“Anything you want with us?”
Koremitsu asked, and the boy widened his eyes in shock as he stared intently at Koremitsu.
The boy then ducked under Koremitsu’s arm, and sprinted off, soon disappearing around the corner.
“What was that about?”
“Is that not a boy who has a crush on Shiiko? He definitely came to confess to her, met a terrifying big brother, and had to run away.”
“Sorry for being a scary big brother.”
Koremitsu looked on sullenly at the place the boy disappeared to.
(He does look like someone I know…either fully, or somehow…)
During dinner, Koremitsu recounted the elementary school boy he met in front of the house, and how the boy immediately paled the moment he spoke up, and ran away.
“No way, that’s definitely a boy who has a crush on Shiiko here. He actually came all the way here like a stalker. Thank goodness Big Brother Koremitsu’s there to chase him off.
Shioriko puffed her cheeks before saying it cheerfully, and Masakaze roared,
“A stalker!? That won’t do, Shiiko. Do you have any preventive buzzer or a spray? I’ll make a notice on the board to get the neighborhood council to take note, and send any suspicious people to the police station.”
And Koharu, upon hearing this, scowled, chiding,
“You’re saying to arrest an elementary school kid if you find him? That makes you look like your Alzheimer’s worsening. Stop it already.”
“What’s with that? You think of your own dad as an old man with Alzheimer’s? That’s why I say women…this eggplant miso soup’s too bland.”
“It’s not like it’s better when saltier. Your tongue will go numb if you eat stuff too flavorful. You’re a lost cause like Koremitsu, but what’ll happen if even Shiiko can’t figure out the fine tastes? Anyway, stop complaining to the one who worked hard to make dinner!”
“Seriously, Aunt Koharu, grandpa Masakaze. Stop fighting already.”
It was only after Shioriko stopped them did the duo snort and look aside.
♢ ♢ ♢
The next day.
In his quest to eat alone in peace and avoid the assaults from Honoka and the rest of the girls, Koremitsu went about looking for a suitable place in school. He then found Aoi, squatting alone at the garden deep within school. It seemed she was brooding over something alone, for she had yet to eat her lunch.
(I wonder if Aoi will run away if I try talking to her…)
Unwilling to leave Aoi alone, Koremitsu slowly approached her.
However, Aoi looked shocked as she suddenly got to her feet.
And Koremitsu too was taken aback.
A figure appeared from behind the building, and it was a youth wearing some refined looking glasses, his slender shoulders tilted forward,
Hikaru’s older brother, Kazuaki, had a strong obsession with Aoi. He had a frivolous smile on his face as he stood in front of Aoi, and spoke to her,
“Good afternoon, Aoi.”
Aoi in turn remained standing still due to fear.
Hikaru yelled in a panic, and Koremitsu dashed off towards Aoi, hollering,
“Back away from Aoi! You perverted big brother!”
A pale looking Aoi turned to look at Koremitsu.
Upon seeing that there were tears welling in Aoi’ eyes, Koremitsu was further incensed,
“What are you doing here!? I’m going to smash your head into the wall if you dare do anything to Aoi!”
“Deary no. I had to wonder how many days my face swelled after you punched me. I could not help but despair whenever I look into the mirror and see the band-aid on my nose, wondering what would happen if I were to have a band-aid on for the rest of my life. I really had the urge to die back then.”
Kazuaki shivered in fear, covering his face with his hands.
“If you’re so worried about your face and don’t want me to wreck you, lock yourself in your home safe and don’t ever show me that goody-goody smiling face.”
“Hau! So mean. I just decided to pay an occasional visit to my beloved Alma mater. I just so happened to find Aoi here all lonely and forlorn, so I just wanted to comfort her.”
“Like hell I’ll believe your words, you two face crossdressing sicko!”
Kazuaki sighed, looking convinced that he was unable to get through to an uncouth man. His expression then changed, showing an earnest smile.
In turn, Aoi was taken aback, and grabbed the hem of Koremitsu’s shirt.
“There is no need to be so tentative, is there? If I had a 100% interest in you back then, Aoi, it can be considered to be 50% now.”
And with a condescending look, Kazuaki stared back at Koremitsu, speaking with the same sweet voice as Hikaru’s,
“For it does seem that Aoi here is not Hikaru’s most beloved.”
Aoi’s face froze.
Hikaru gasped, and a stunned Koremitsu glared back.
(This guy, did he…)
Did he already figure out who Hikaru’s ‘most beloved’ is?
Is he intending to tell Aoi the truth?
“Such a tragic lie it is~ He would actually do things that are supposed to be done with the woman he loved most after all. On the other hand, he always treated Aoi like a child, a little sister.”
Aoi’s face became increasingly stiff, her face paler than before, and the fingers grabbing Koremitsu’s shirt were shivering slightly.
“Please do not say anymore, Mr. Kazuaki!”
Hikaru yelled in an anguished over.
And just when Koremitsu was about to slam a fist into Kazuaki,
“Oh yes. I heard that Hikaru’s child will be born in winter. The mother seems to be a college girl, I heard? A single woman wanting to raise a child in such a cramped apartment? I am moved.”
The latter’s expression became increasingly leery as he continued on.
(Raising a child alone in the apartment…did this guy mistake Sora for Hikaru’s ‘most beloved’!?)
“How will the child turn out to be like? I suppose, as Hikaru’s child, that child will inherit Hikaru’s splendor after all, no? It will be wonderful if it can be born.”
Hikaru too realized Kazuaki’s misunderstanding, but he was tense for a different reason.
(Sora will be in danger if Kazuaki has his eyes on her!)
A chill went up Koremitsu’s spine.
“I really am looking forward to it. Can the child be born soon? I will have a niece soon, and I will take care of the child, making sure not to devour it.”
The warm breeze whiffed Kazuaki’s hair, causing his tender voice to scatter in the wind. An alluring glint flashed by his eyes, and the lips that slowly curled up were instantly red like blood.
That was the embodiment of the spider.
A shiver went up the spine, through Koremitsu’s entire body, and he stopped moving forward.
Evading Koremitsu’s outstretched arm that was aiming for the shirt, Kazuaki pulled his distance away.
“Bye now, Mr. Koremitsu, Aoi. Please do not show such terrifying faces the next time we meet.”
After saying such words with a grin, Kazuaki departed.
Aoi was standing there, shivering.
The narrowed eyes oozed tears, and Aoi tightened her lips and continued to blink, trying to stop the tears.
Aoi here is not Hikaru’s most beloved.
Hikaru had a child with the woman he loved most, and that child would be born in winter.
That was what Kazuaki said.
One had to wonder how hurt Aoi was to be mocked by Kazuaki’s voice that was as sweet as Hikaru’s.
“Miss Aoi. Even if that was the case, you were my final choice. I am willing to use my entire life to ensure your happiness, Miss Aoi.”
Hikaru desperately pleaded beside Aoi.
And Koremitsu too tried to placate Aoi, his heart filled with the impulse to embrace her shivering shoulders.
But if Kazuaki were to set his eyes on Sora instead, she and the child inside her would be in danger.
Koremitsu had to hurry to Sora’s side.
With a hoarse, desperate voice, Aoi murmured to Koremitsu.
“Even if Mr. Kazuaki did not say so…I do know that Hikaru has a very special person to him.”
And Hikaru, eavesdropping, was left dumbfounded.
“N-no matter how unaware of what is going on…I do know about that at least…so please head over to that lady as soon as possible.”
Hikaru lowered his head deeply, looking extremely apologetic as he whispered to Aoi,
“Sorry for being unable to bring you happiness, Miss Aoi. I am sorry for dying alone personally.”
With a heartbroken feeling, Koremitsu too lowered his head,
After saying that, he sprinted out.
His heart ached increasingly as he thought of how Aoi was left alone, crying by the tree alone.
“Ah! Mr. Akagi!”
A petite girl with short curls came running over to him on the corridor.
It was Michiru.
“I’ve been looking for you. Erm, there’s a shop selling imported baby products, and they all look very cute. I thought I want to go with you, Mr. Akagi…”
“We’ll talk about that later. I’m in a hurry.”
Koremitsu glared as he said that to Michiru, causing the latter to flinch. He left Michiru behind as he went sprinting out of the school gates.
(Damn it! That bastard Kazuaki! If I could only knock him out before he could say anything more to Aoi!)
Koremitsu’s mind was in a mess, whether it was due to his rage at Kazuaki, the complicated feelings for Aoi, or his worry for Sora, and it was suffocating him.
If something were to happen to Sora.
If something were to happen to the child within Sora.
He was supposed to be the one protecting Sora in Hikaru’s place!
Sora was so earnestly endearing the child that was to be born!
(How can I let Kazuaki, that pervert, do something to the woman precious to Hikaru, to Hikaru’s kid!)
Hikaru, following sidelong, looked tense as well; he looked blurred due to the sweat seeping into Koremitsu’s eyes.
Koremitsu was left panting furious once he got to Sora’s apartment, his bones creaking all over as a wail rang deep within him.
He pressed the bell,
And the moment the door opened, Koremitsu yelled her name, sprinting into the apartment.
Sora widened her eyes in shock.
Koremitsu had a look at Sora’s face and the tummy hidden under the fluttering tunic. Once he was sure Sora and the child were fine, he continued to ask, still worried,
“Sora, did anything happen? Did anyone come by? Were you threatened or attacked? Is there anything troubling you? If something’s to happen to you, I…”
Koremitsu’s tears were oozing out, unable to hold in the intense emotions.
He knew a man would not be one to cry easily; however, was it really good for him to not be able to cry in this situation? He was utterly furious at how weak he was.
And Hikaru, right beside him, collapsed on his knees as he smiled,
“Thank goodness…Sora is safe.”
Sora in turn embraced Koremitsu gently by the shoulders to calm him down, leading him into the room, asking,
“What’s the matter? Did something happened, Mr. Akagi?”
Koremitsu however remained in a frenzy, and he obeyed Sora’s advice to sit on the cushion, easing his panting.
“I was really worried about you, Sora. So I came running over here…if…if anything were to happen to you…and your kid…what am I supposed to do?”
Koremitsu’s eyes were entirely red as he continued to rattle on. And so, Sora suddenly reached her white, slender arms forward, embracing Koremitsu within.
Just like a mother embracing a child.
Something warm and tender touched Koremitsu, engulfing him gently within.
“Calm down, Mr. Akagi.”
An amicable alto voice rang, the voice akin to a lullaby.
“I’m completely fine here, and so is the child.”
She then continued with a soothing, serene voice.
“Hey, it’s alright.”
The sweet aroma of green tea and the refreshing whiff of grapefruit blended and fused together, causing the torrent of emotions swirling within Koremitsu to subside.
Even though he had the experience of being embraced before, Koremitsu never experienced the rare sensation of being embraced in the arms.
He did not feel his heart race, and neither did he feel flustered and embarrassed. He merely felt extremely moved to feel such peace and healing.
At this point, he finally understood how Hikaru, utterly battered within, was redeemed by Sora, not just on the surface, but also personally experiencing it.
He felt fortitude, tenderness and relief from Sora, and it felt like she would accept and retain everything about himself, protecting him.
That was the charm he had never experienced from Hikaru’s other flowers, and he felt himself drowning within.
In the distant past, if that mother of his had embraced him like this when he was still immature, perhaps this might be the feeling.
The peace within his heart and the desire to fawn about coagulated together, and he did not want to leave; he wanted to continue remaining like this.
He felt very awkward when he wondered what expression Hikaru would show when looking at him, but he could not refuse Sora’s embrace, and he could feel his heart pounding in Sora’s chest.
At this moment, the intercom chimed.
Not once, but twice.
Koremitsu got up in a panic.
And Hikaru too looked wary as he stood beside Sora.
“Stay there, Sora. Don’t move.”
Koremitsu said, and approached the door with a skeptical looking Sora behind him.
The intercom rang again, and it seemed the person outside knew that there was someone inside, practically ordering someone to open the door as soon as possible.
Koremitsu narrowed his eyes, and looked through the peephole.
Standing there was…
All he saw in the peephole was a peeved looking tall, lanky girl with long black hair, Asai Saiga.
Koremitsu opened the door, and Asai’s usual blade-like stare was looking back at him.
“Is Hikaru’s partner inside?”
She interrogated Koremitsu with a heinous voice,
And shoved him aside before he could answer,
“Asa? Why are you here too?”
Hikaru, standing right beside Sora in the apartment, too widened his eyes.
Koremitsu did not tell anyone, including Asai that Sora was one of Hikaru’s mistresses, and she was living in such an apartment
The rumors of Asai bearing Koremitsu’s child had vanished completely once Asai coerced the teachers into giving a diagnosis that she was innocent.
She did not send any messages to Koremitsu over the past few days, probably because she was afraid of starting another misunderstanding, or that she was left red faced after she herself started off that sort of rumor in the first place. This caused the impression that Asai would not look for him.
If Asai wanted to, it would be easy for her to investigate who Hikaru’s partner was.
Furthermore, Koremitsu had been visiting Sora’s apartment over the past few days, and it was obvious as to the reason why.
Asai seemed extremely peeved, displeased that Koremitsu hid the fact about Sora’s pregnancy from him.
Though she may seem cerebral and rational, Asai was one who easily let her emotions overwhelm her, and there was nothing anyone could do when she was like that. Her cousin, Hikaru, naturally knew about it, and Koremitsu only understood this recently.
The moment he saw the seething look on Asai’s face,
(This is bad.)
He immediately had this premonition.
“I had enough of your waiting already.”
Asai retorted with an icy voice, and stood in front of Sora.
Sora too got up, and asked with a skeptical look,
“Erm, who may you be?”
“Hikaru’s cousin, Asai Saiga.”
Sora widened her eyes,
“Mr Hikaru’s cousin?”
“You must be Miss Sora Semigaya, right? I heard that you are pregnant with Hikaru’s child, am I correct?”
“Hey! I said already…”
“That was too straightforward, Asa.”
Koremitsu and Hikaru frantically tried to stop Asai, but she could not hear Hikaru’s voice, and Koremitsu’s pleas fell on deaf ears.
Sora gave a frown on her little forehead, the mole under the eye looking exceptionally forlorn by the moment.
With a scowl, Asai diverted her eyes to Sora’s abdomen.
“It seems that you have not decided on the hospital yet. What do you intend to do? If it is really Hikaru’s child, you cannot allow the child to be raised in such a cramped apartment. Also, there is a need to do a DNA test immediately after the child is born.”
And Sora frowned harder than before.
She then covered her belly, ostensibly shielding it from Asai’s eyes as she stared back.
That feisty expression was the exact same as when she raised the broom high, unlike the feeble, pacifist woman image.
And that infuriated Asai.
“Do you understand your…?”
Current situation? Before she could say those words, Koremitsu grabbed her arm, and forcibly dragged her out of the apartment. He closed the door, and led her downstairs.
“Let go of me, Mr Akagi.”
“Calm down already, you! It’s not your call for the hospital or a DNA test here!”
And Hikaru too looked on in dismay from the sidelines.
Asai waved Koremitsu’s hand off, chiding,
“That child may be Hikaru’s, and I cannot leave it alone like this, can I? You too, do not act on your own without consulting me.”
A scathing criticism was in the eyes. Perhaps Asai was utterly infuriated that Koremitsu never voiced out his problems to her.
And Koremitsu reflected a little upon the feelings Asai must have felt, lowering his voice as he apologized,
“I’m in the wrong here, but Sora said that the child inside her was not Hikaru’s, and she intended to give birth to the child alone. I don’t want to cause a huge commotion until she can understand where we’re coming from. I want to do something for her knowing that the child may very well be Hikaru’s, and I understand that you can’t remain calm. However, the one being the mother this time is Sora.”
Asai closed her lips tight.
But even so, she still reflected on her actions, and did not retort back as she kept her lips shut, pouting in dissatisfaction.
“Anyway, I’ll definitely look for you when I need your help. Can’t you just wait this for the time being?”
Koremitsu earnestly pleaded with Asai.
“…I am not going to bother with you if something is to trouble you and you do not look for me.”
Asai turned her face aside, saying it so stiffly.
“Ohh! You’re rather reliable, Asa.”
“Do not call me Asa…”
Those words she always repeated stopped midway through. For some reason, her face was slightly flushed,
“It is fine for you…to call me Asa.”
“If it is you.”
Asai peeked at Koremitsu’s face, and quickly showed a poker face…or so one would think, before she eased her face and curled her lips into a smile,
“I shall wait for your call then.”
After saying that, she departed.
(Wh-what the? She said that I can call her Asa…is it a special discount day today or something? She just felt a lot better out of a sudden.”
“I am amazed, Koremitsu.”
Hikaru, being sidelong, looked extremely impressed as he said,
“I have no idea when exactly were you so adept at handling Asa.”
“Now what are you saying out of a sudden?”
“Perhaps I may have to start consulting you sometime down the road.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about here.”
Such a conversation continued as the duo scaled the stairs, returning to Sora’s room.
While wondering how to explain Asai to Sora, he opened the door.
“I’m coming in, Sora.”
And then, the scenery that appeared to Koremitsu caused him to freeze.
Hikaru too gasped.
The nose could scent upon a strong fragrance.
Scattered all over the floor was a large amount of tea leaves and scattered grapefuit zest.
The fragrance of Japanese tea and grapefruit continued to fill Sora’s apartment.
Sora did tell him before it was a a air freshener she brewed, and that she kept them in a jar after making them. When using them, she would scoop it out with a ladle and put it in an aroma pot.
But the tatamis were in tatters, not because the jar fell accidentally, but because she slammed it down onto the floor.
Still cuddling her belly, Sora lowered her head as she knelt on the tatamis.
Her left arm was bleeding, and the tatamis were stained with it. Spinning by the side were the fragments of the broken cup.
That cup had a Japanese design.
And Sora had always used it to brew tea.
The baby magazines and items Koremitsu brought were also scattered everywhere.
(What’s going on? What just happened?)
It was just several minutes ago when Koremitsu’s group left the house.
And in such a short time…
Hikaru’s yell caused Koremitsu to recover,
And the latter dashed over to her,
“Sora, what happened! Are you alright? You’re bleeding—”
“The cup broke…I cut myself when I tried to clean things up.”
Sora said with a trembling voice,
The thin hair was in a mess, strands all over her forehead, sticking on her face. The lips continued to shiver, and the shoulders and hands were quivering slightly.
“You cut your arm? Got to treat it fast. First we have to clean the wound…”
Sora waved Koremitsu’s arm off.
“No need to clean the wound.”
Why was it like this?
Why did Sora lower her head so timidly?
Did Sora cause the mess in the room?
Feeling completely befuddled, Koremitsu’s head was sizzling, and the contrasting cold was swimming throughout his back.
Sora continued to remain kneeling, seemingly determined not to move.
There was blood from the wounds on her left thumb and index finger, dripping onto the tatamis.
She suddenly said this with a hoarse voice.
She twisted her body, lowered her head deeply, and continued to sob.
She continued to repeat the word over and over again.
“I actually should not have given birth to this child. I let my little sister take my place! It’s because of me that my sister, my family…I’m an ugly person who has no right to bear this child! I’m sorry, sorry.”
—I’m really sorry, Mitsu.
The words Sora struggled so hard to eke out, coupled with the dripping tears and shivering look, caused Koremitsu to be overwhelmed with a tremendous pain and shock all over his body.
—I’m really sorry, Mitsu.
Sora’s profile and covering face became one with Koremitsu’s sobbing mother, causing a shrillness in his ears, his vision shaking.
There was his mother sobbing as she leaned on Koharu.
—I’m a terrible mother….
There were little felt bears thrown all over the floor, each with their limbs broken.
His mother’s pale hands were covering the face.
There was red blood seeping from Sora’s face.
There were tears trickling down her face
The stinging fragrance.
Koremitsu’s feet were wobbly, ostensibly abandoned in the viscous darkness.
“Pull yourself together, Koremitsu! Sora is not your mother!”
If not for Hikaru’s holler, Koremitsu’s inner heart could have vanished into the tatamis.
Awakened by Hikaru, Koremitsu picked up the towel meant to celebrate the baby’s birth, soaked it in water, wiped Sora’s arm, and used another towel to wrap the wound.
The sobbing Sora let Koremitsu handle her wounds as she continued to weep incessantly,
“Sorry…it’s all your sister’s fault. I’m sorry…”
And those words became softer and softer.
Soon after, after exerting all the strength in his body, he loosened his shoulders, and stared blankly at the items scattered all over the tatamis.
After seeing the broken fragments, the thin eyebrows sank in depression, and the eye with the mole near it dampened again.
“…It was the one cup I choose with Mr Hikaru.”
And she stared at the cup.
For some reason, Hikaru was taken aback when he saw it.
At this point, Sora too continued to reminisce the past.
Koremitsu slowly tidied the room, for he was afraid that he would sink into that viscous darkness again if he did not move.
While cleaning up the magazines, he found a postcard.
And there was a photo attached to it.
There was a woman wearing a Holland, or Swiss tribal clothing, an elegant apron with red frills around the hem of the skirt, holding a baby in the hands.
However, neither she nor the baby could be seen.
For the places above the neck of the child were cut off neatly by a pair of scissors.
Koremitsu found something amiss, and froze. Hikaru too went beside Koremitsu as he peered in on the postcard, his expression becoming somber too.
There was a message written in marker ink at the bottom of the postcard.
“I really miss you, big sister. From Ogi.”
(Big sister? So the woman in this photo is Sora’s little sister?)
Hikaru too continued to stare at the photo.
And at this moment, Sora looked down at the cup in her hands, still looking forlorn.
She never stood up until the end.
I’m fine by myself here, so it’s best for you to head back now, Mr Akagi. After she pleaded, Koremitsu left the apartment.
The night got darker, and Koremitsu lowered his head as he returned home.
I let my little sister take my place!
I’m an ugly person who has no right to bear this child!
Sora’s yell continued to linger in Koremitsu’s ears.
And the sight of her continuing to apologize and sob remained for a long time.
While Koremitsu walked on with heavy steps, Hikaru whispered,
“I never did choose a cup for Sora.”
♢ ♢ ♢
That night, Koremitsu gave Sora a call on her cellphone, but she never picked up.
And he was left unable to sleep, opening his eyes umpteenth times in the night. After seeing the darkness in Hikaru’s eyes as he stared at the void with an empty look, Koremitsu was left further depressed, and closed his eyes again. Such actions repeated themselves until the next morning.
Once he got to school, Koremitsu gave a few calls and messages to Sora, but the calls never got through, and the messages were never replied.
Why exactly did Sora start sobbing away and become frenzied? Like a completely different person?
Did Asai’s visit cause such a great shock?
It was true that an ordinary woman would have been intimidated by Asai being uppity and giving commands.
But the impression Sora gave Koremitsu over the past few days was that she was a composed, firm-willed woman. She really loved the child in her belly, saying that she had nothing to fear raising a child alone through her own strength. Koremitsu would not believe that Sora would simply be rattled just because of some harsh words from Aai.
Hikaru too must have felt the same thing, and it was apparent from his gloomy face that he was thinking about something.
(I shouldn’t have gone home just like that after all.)
Sora said that she was fine, but she could not even stand up on her own.
The sobbing image of Sora overlapped that of his mother.
—I’m really sorry, Mitsu.
A sharp pain ran rampant in his heart, and his head was aching.
(Sora and my mom are different. She’s stronger than mom, warmer and more gentler than her, and she does like her own kid.)
I’m an ugly person who has no right to bear this child!
There was the photo attached to the postcard, with a straight cut above the baby’s head.
“I really miss you, big sister. From Ogi.”
Was Sora the one who cut the photo?
(Why? Why did she do such a thing? She said that she let her sister take her place? What exactly happened between Sora and her family?
There was a huge pile of things Koremitsu could not understand, and his head was increasingly aching.
Koremitsu kept checking the messages on his phone during classes, and Honoka, from the side, watched on worriedly.
Michiru did not approach Koremitsu on this day because of the cold shoulder she got the previous day Tsuyako did not attend school as she had to practice for a public performance.
And Honoka was the first one to ask Koremitsu,
“What’s the matter? Your eyes are red. Lack of sleep?”
Koremitsu replied curtly.
“Did you get into some troublesome thing again?”
“…It’s nothing, at all.”
Honoka curled her lips slightly, and continued,
“If there’s anything, tell me.”
She then returned back to her seat.
At this point, she too was worried about Koremitsu, peeking at him over and over again.
Honoka’s worry had reached Koremitsu’s heart, and Koremitsu too felt concerned that others were worried.
(I just can’t keep relying on Shikibu here.)
And at this point, he still had yet to inform Honoka that Sora was bearing Hikaru’s child.
Furthermore, he was extremely gloomy not because of Sora, but that Sora’s profile kept overlapping that of his mother that left home, and he was unwilling to clarify that to Honoka.
(It’s been 10 years since mom left home, and yet I still have a longing for her.)
Honoka’s smile was so bright as she tried to cheer Koremitsu, yet the latter merely showed a poker face, and he could not even smile and answer, “I’m fine.” This caused him to be angsty and peeved.
(If only I can smile.)
He tried curling up his lips, but they remained stiff like usual.
After waiting anxiously for time to pass, it was finally time for school dismissal.
“Let’s go check out Sora’s place.”
Koremitsu conversed with Hikaru as he hurried towards the school gates.
At this moment, the cellphone in his pocket vibrated.
He took it out, and found that the call was from Sora.
He hurriedly picked up the phone, and heard the tranquil alto voice from Sora,
“Mr Akagi? I do apologize for what happened yesterday. I just so happened to recall some past events because of what Miss Saiga said.”
There was none of the usual vigor in Sora’s voice, but it was not as erratic as it was the previous day, and there was no weeping to be heard.
“I’m going over now, Sora.”
“Sorry, but I’m not in the apartment now. I’m at a distant place.”
Hikaru, listening from the side, too showed a incredulous look.
“Hey, Sora, where are you at now? What time will you be back?”
“Not for the time being. I just thought of going to a place I went with Mr Hikaru before. It seems I’m a little too early though, and I probably won’t be back until Autumn ends.”
She said with a lovely voice.
And there was a melodic harmony intertwined in her words.
That was the melody the kindergarten teacher played on the piano when Koremitsu was much younger, and there seemed to be lyrics to it. It apparently was a simple, cute tune.
“The glittering stars…”
Hikaru whispered, his voice as light as breathing.
(What’s with this? Some cellphone tune? No, a music box?)
“That’s it for now. Thank you for everything till now, Mr Akagi.”
Hikaru too exclaimed in unison.
“Isn’t there anything I can do? Didn’t you make a promise with Hikaru? I’ll do anything for you. Tell me what you wish for!”
If there’s something troublesome, tell me.
I’ll definitely help you!
I’ll protect both you, and the baby inside you!
So I’ll fulfill your promise with Hikaru! Tell me your wish!
The glittering stars melody continued to ring clearly,
And Sora, ostensibly wishing to end the call sooner, said,
“Nothing…I’m as empty as the name Sora implies, the shed skin of a cicada.”
The line was cut.
Koremitsu gripped the phone with enough force to crush it, and turned to Sora.
“Where’s the place you went with Sora?”
“I do not know.”
Hikaru answered with a pale voice.
“Because we never went traveling together.”
—I never did choose a cup for Sora before.
Koremitsu and Hikaru stared back at each other’s faces.
Hikaru looked extremely awkward, and Koremitsu too must be showing the same look.
“…What’s going on?”
“I do not know. Perhaps Sora did lie, or perhaps we did really choose a cup before, and did travel together before.”
The mist of darkness filled the heart.
While both of them were pondering, the sweating hand holding the cellphone vibrated ominously.
An anonymous message.
When the contents were shown on the screen, both Koremitsu and Hikaru had tense looks on their faces,
“The women who were with Lord Hikaru. Fourth Act: ‘Sora Semigaya’.
The culprit who sold the youth of a girl, her little sister, to a teacher.”