◆ Mizuto ◆
I can say now that I was young and foolish, but I had an existence called a girlfriend between my second and third years of middle school.
It had lasted a year and a half long, but despite that, both of our dating experiences were negligible—that’s because our social circles were smaller than a stray cat’s.
Option 1: Bookshop.
Option 2: Library.
Option 3: Second-hand Bookstore.
So, where’re we going today?
That’s pretty much how it felt.
Couples all over the world went to dating hotspots like karaokes, movies, restaurants, and Kamo river… but well, Ayai and I were shut-ins. We weren’t the sort to actively go looking for reasons to leave our comfort zone.
That’s why this event was filled with so many unknowns.
Saturday morning. I woke up much earlier than usual, dressed up, and left home without meeting Yume.
I agreed to meet her at the plaza with the ‘clock lights’ in Kyoto station. That’d really make it look like a date─or so that guy said.
I took the subway to Kyoto station, and exited the station building through the Hachijo east exit.
My destination was the night bus stop nearby. It had a paid rest area with a toilet and a dressing room, reasonably priced for students (or so I’d heard).
I passed the doors, and found that guy, Kogure Kawanami, seated on the chair. He turned around to look at me.
He wore a raglan t-shirt and manpris. It made him look frivolous. He looked at me, and for a moment he was speechless.
“You…you’re aware you’re not headed to the convenience store, right?”
“Then put some effort in dressing up!”
Anything weird about this? I just opened up my wardrobe, chose the outermost clothes, and put them on.
Kawanami sighed, looking utterly distraught.
“Well, it’s not like I didn’t expect it at all. You looked like that kinda guy.”
“What do you mean, ‘that kinda guy’?”
“The kind who doesn’t put his heart into a date. That’s unacceptable to a girl!”
How rude. Nobody’d made harsh comments about my sense of fashion before.
“Anyway, I prepared a set for you. Get changed. We don’t have much time.”
“Ehh? I’m fine with this here…”
“I mean this is unacceptable! Looks like it’s up to me to drive home what today’s objective is!!”
Kawanami dragged me into the changing room, and tossed me some new clothes. He even chose fitting shoes. What’s this about? He prepared them for me? Just how many bunkos’ worth was this…? Did he need to work so hard for another person’s date? It was disgusting.
“Irido-kun, dude, your good friend here just footed the bill on your date─for the two of you, and that’s the look you give me? Talk about rude!”
“Sorry, I don’t lie to myself. Frankly, you’re disgusting.”
“Don’t make it sound like you’re rejecting a confession! Well, the thing about fetishes is that they’re mostly disgusting, so that’s forgivable.”
So that’s forgivable? And dressing me up’s your fetish? That’s really disgusting.
“Listen up Irido. The objective of today’s date is to make that rare sunny girl Akatsuki Minami give up on Yume-san.”
Once I was done changing, Kawanami applied wax on my hair, basically blocking off my retreat as he went through the objectives of this operation.
“Yume Irido declared herself to be a brocon right after entering school, so we’re making it a reality—we just need to make sure that Minami understands that Irido-san only has eyes for you, and that her family plans are ruined. You need to woo the socks off her, act all lovey-dovey, and cause Minami’s heart to explode.”
If that girl knows that you’re dating Irido-san, she’ll stalk you—so Kawanami said.
…I got what he was saying, I really did…
“Oy oy, what happened? You’re taking the prettiest girl in your year out on a date. Why do you look so unwilling?”
“…I can’t explain Minami-san’s situation to her, which means she doesn’t know what’s going on. In other words, I need to keep attacking her. Is there anything more worrisome than this?”
“It’s unexpectedly simple though, at least to me.”
Hihihi, he giggled irresponsibly. Every time this guy opened his mouth, nonsense came flooding out.
There’s no way I didn’t have any objections to the plan Kawanami came up with at the spur of the moment, but unfortunately, I couldn’t think of any alternate solution.
I had to conquer the ex-girlfriend after our honeymoon ended—and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I was a scumbag missing his ex. I was uncomfortable with that.
Right when I sighed, it seemed Kawanami was done.
He marveled. My appearance was completely off because of him, and he was marveling.
“Does it really not suit me? Then don’t…”
The concept of fashion really didn’t suit me. Even if I wore more expensive clothes, I’d still feel disjointed, both outwardly as well as inwardly.
It seemed to be a waste of time. I reached my hand out, trying to rid myself of the wax figure that was my hair.
“Wait, wait wait wait!”
Kawanami hastily stopped me.
“Just go! Don’t worry too much! Just go and you’ll understand!”
Did he really want to embarrass me? Seriously, was this guy hoping for my date to succeed, or fail?
I sighed sadly as I left the lounge.
I sensed the stares of passersby gathered upon me for some strange reason.
◆ Yume ◆
…A little bit to the right. Ahh, too much. A little to the left. Yep…no, hmm…?
I used the phone as a mirror, and adjusted my bangs over and over again.
I was waiting for my little stepbrother before the Kyoto Tower Stand, the white candle-like tower behind me.
Of course, I wasn’t willing to date him again at this point, but it was a penalty for the rule I broke, and I couldn’t refuse. Speaking of which, it felt like we were dating. That was against the rule.
“…No, siblings who get along hang out together every now and again…right? They’ll at least meet outside…maybe.”
Yep, it was part of being stepsiblings, not a frivolous date between couples. Nothing to do with our prior relationship! Nope!
I fiddled with my bangs as I looked at the time, and felt warm stares next to me.
I got more used to the looks people gave me after I changed my image, but what was with these warm stares…? Even the men catcalling passing females out there were looking at me like they were watching over their daughter or something.
What’s going on? Was there anything weird about me fiddling with my bangs? Or was it about my attire? Maybe it was because he was the one who asked me out, and I ended up being fired up. Uuuu…I’m a little restless!
“…Wonder what the boy’ll be like~~…?”
“…I guess it’s a really handsome guy, since he’s asking such a cute girl out…”
I heard such whispers.
I guessed it was troublesome to stand out so much in appearance. Nobody noticed us when we met up, but at this point, the people around us were looking so hopeful.
It was so awkward… Because the guy that’d show up was someone who wouldn’t know fashion if it hit him in the face. He just didn’t stand out. It might sound like I’m boasting, but frankly, we were leagues apart when it came to appearances.
It appeared I had to be taken for a fool—
I made up my mind, but a deep, refreshing voice rang at my ear.
“Sorry for being a little late.”
◆ Mizuto ◆
“Sorry for being a little late.”
I greeted Yume, who was leaning back on the wall.
And at that moment, she looked up at me.
She blurted embarrassingly.
…This attire really doesn’t suit me after all. I didn’t really fit this outfit, but that Kawanami forced me into this…
Maybe it was just me, but I felt quite a few stares around me. Well, if we just looked at her appearance, it was impossible to call Yume anything but cute. I guess everyone else was just noting how she was meeting up with some ordinary guy like me.
I never really paid attention to the looks around me, but this was the one time I felt a little restless.
I’ll remember this…Kawanami.
Yume blinked away as she pointed at me. Her finger shook a little.
“You’re…my little stepbrother Mizuto, right?”
“…The older stepbrother Mizuto.”
Can’t you tell?
Yume kept staring at me from head to toe and back. For some reason, she ended up quivering all over, covering her mouth with both hands.
◆ Yume ◆
I screamed in my head as I once again sized up the guy in front of me.
He didn’t dress up too fancily. A lightly colored vest with a refreshing look, shirt and jeans, it was all passable.It was a modest outfitthat wouldn’t embarrass any girl walking alongside him.
But, oh man.
There was an intellectual look on his delicate face, and his somewhat troubled look felt like a perfect opportunity to strike. The face just rattled the maternal instincts within me, and I really wanted him to look more troubled.
What’s more, his collar bones just popped out from time to time, and so did his wrists from his sleeves; they’re giving off a strange vibe! Showing off how manly you are like that?! That’s illegal!
And the decisive blow came from the melancholy oozing from his face and posture.
Eh? What what? Something happened? Is there something on your mind? You can talk to me about this, you know?
His posture was giving me the urge to say such things.
Oh no. What’s with this intellectual, goody-goody looking boy? Is my delusion coming to life? Oh no no no no no no. It feels like the world’s realism is passing at a visible speed. This is bad bad bad bad bad!
“…If you have something on your mind, please don’t say it.”
Mizuto averted his eyes, looking a little embarrassed as he fiddled his neat bangs with his fingertips. He was so overly handsome, and there were sudden squeals around us.
It’s no wonder we caught attention. We got a guy right out of a shoujo mobile game before me.
He was my ex-boyfriend, and he was also my little stepbrother.
I really resisted the urge to brag out loud.
…Ca-calm down. I can’t be fooled by his appearance. No matter how cool he looks, no matter how he hides his unimpressive looking legs with jeans, he’s still that guy inside—yep, he might have an ideal appearance, but not in personality.
“N-none at all? It’s nothing. Anyway, let’s hurry to where we’re going. There isn’t much time now. This is all your fault.”
I folded my arms to hide how rattled I was, and barely managed to behave as normal.
That was really dangerous. Thank goodness he was just a vase.
Haa~ thank goodness thank goodness. Thank goodness he’s not going to grab my hand and pull me with just the right mix of gentlemanliness and strength—
“Yeah. Let’s go,” Mizuto said as he grabbed my hand with 80% gentleness and 20% firmness.
My heart pounded greatly as all the ladies around us cheered, and I died.
◆ Mizuto ◆
We walked close to the bus lane.
Whenever she was about to bump into others, I consciously pulled her over to my side.
When we waited at the traffic lights, I mentioned a few topics.
When she showed interest in anything, I hollered to her.
I did everything Kawanami told me to do.
I was aware that it was so unlike me to do these things. I never treated her like a princess, even when we were dating.
That ‘princess’ probably felt the same, which was probably why she was feeling terrible and quiet. The gazes around us seemed to indicate that we were attracting much attention, in a terrible way.
…Whether or not I can ‘conquer’ her isn’t even the issue.. I shouldn’t have done such unnecessary things to begin with. Maybe I should have treated her like normal?
But whenever I thought so, the phone in my pocket would vibrate at such opportune moments. It was Kawanami’s indication that ‘I’m doing fine’.
I snuck a sidelong glance at Yume, who had her lips pursed.
Guess she would feel disgusted to be showered in kindness.
◆ Yume ◆
It feels gooooooddddddddd~~~~!!!
What!? What’s with this guy today!? He’s so gentlemanly! So kind! He’s flawlessly ticking all the boxes!
U-uh oh…I pursed my lips.
If I were to burst out in laughter so openly, people’d look at me like some kind of weirdo. I have to endure this… endure… endure…
“…Woah, lookie-look, those two…”
“…Amazing, what a perfect couple…”
Whenever I heard such whispers from the couples passing us by, I could feel my lips curving into a smile.
I spent a year working hard, and had a Class Change into a proper Pretty Girl (nothing wrong with calling myself that, right?), and was walking alongside a completely transformed, intellectual, obedient-looking Mizuto. I see, that did make us resemble a flirty couple, a common streetside attraction.
At that point, we’d become the focus of everyone’s attention, smack-dab in the middle of a bustling street.
To think we were such a gloomy couple a year ago, no different from furniture in a classroom!
…It really felt good…
I even forgot about Mizuto, who was walking next to me, as I pricked my ears to hear the surrounding voices. Ahh, I heard another little mutter.
“…Heh~ these two really get along well…”
“…Oi. Stop staring…”
It’s fine! Don’t worry! Keep looking! Even though we aren’t on good terms!
◆ Mizuto ◆
“…Heh~ these two really get along well…”
“…Oi. Stop staring…”
I heard them talk, and barely resisted the urge to snap around to them.
Once more, I looked at the vertically-mismatched couple mixed in the crowd.
…Kogure Kawanami and Akatsuki Minami.
Originally, the plan was to have Kawanami keep an eye on Minami-san, who was stalking us. Somehow, it ended up like this. This sure was some strange double date, but at least it beat having him stalk her.
Kawanami’s tallness really drove home just how petite Minami-san was, but it didn’t look like she was bothered by her height. She wore clear-lens glasses and a cap, and clearly she put effort into disguising herself… but the aura she exuded gave her away immediately.
She wore a long T-shirt dress with mysterious English words. It clearly showed her fine legs, but still made her look like a tomboy. By contrast, she exuded an aura sticky as a swamp. Probably a Water/Dark element.
—Listen up, Irido. You can’t skimp on this.
I observed Minami-san’s clothing, and recalled what Kawanami’d told me.
—Make sure you praise her outfit. Get it? Just do it.
Mnnn. Even after he mentioned it, I never did. I’d been so preoccupied with my own appearance, I missed the opportunity to compliment hers.
I knew what to focus on, and bucked up. It wasn’t a bad idea to also take the chance to have a jab at Minami-san.
That’s what I thought as I went over Yume’s attire. It could be described as completely girly, totally unlike the tomboy-ish Minami-san.
Yume wore a plainly-colored blouse fitting the season, along with a knee-length skirt. She also wore blue tights up to her thighs─she’d put a lot of attention to detail on the rest, but it looked like she was against exposing her bare thighs.
She was wearing a red beret, and coupled with her black hair, resembled ‘a Princess attending an arts college’. I really started to wonder if she had something like in her family name.
But…it was then that I realized.
Somehow, she seemed really psyched for this?
It felt like she was being a bit too enthusiastic about a dutiful, romance-less date. Why was that…? She probably wasn’t aware of the reason for this date.
No…wait, maybe that’s why?
She believed we were out on a normal date. How many months had it been since last we’d gone on one?
So if you applied common sense, obviously that’s why she’d worked so hard to doll herself up.
Yume glanced up at me. Her long eyelashes were blinking away.
…Shit. This felt so weird. It’s because I was being forced into doing stuff I wasn’t used to.. In other words, I blamed Kawanami.
—You can’t skimp on this.
I could hear that guy’s voice in my mind…ahh seriously, got it, got it. I’ll praise her, alright!?
“Eh?” She turned to mewith a look of complete surprise, which left me flustered. I barely managed to press down this emotion as I soldiered on.
“You look…rather cute.”
My voice was a little hoarse, and it sounded somewhat sarcastic.
I-I messed up. I thought I had to clear things up, so I turned to face her.
And then I saw a pair of flushed ears.
Yume’s head was lowered deeply as she looked down at her dress.
And then, she eked out a whisper softer than mine, through the curtain that was her drooping black hair.
……Oy, oy oy oy oy.
She’d had a boyfriend before. Was this really the sort of reaction she should have? It felt like she was a middle-schooler, on a date with her first-ever crush.
Haahhh, good grief. I really can’t stand shy people. Now even I’m getting embarrassed. Hey, you high school rookie, it’s time to pull yourself together. Come on, let me show you.
I turned my head aside, and eked out a reply more hoarse than before.
Just then, the phone in my pocket started vibrating.. Oy Kawanami, got a problem!? We’re both embarrassed, you happy now, bastard!?
There was a strange, unbearable awkwardness between us, for some reason. Seriously, I was starting to worry about what was coming up for the date. We were only getting started…
“S-say, speaking of which.”
Yume started, as though trying to break this mood. Good going. You earned some praise there.
“Erm…where…are we going now?”
Oh, guess I didn’t tell her.
The plan was to make Akatsuki Minami see how tight our relationship was, and make her retreat. Kawanami planned the entire date for me, as I was clueless about this sort of thing. He really enjoyed himself.
According to him, theme parks were no good, as you couldn’t be sure about the queue lengths. Cinemas were risky, because tastes could clash. In conclusion, he chose a place that wasn’t too popular, was neither too bright nor too dim, and had a number of attractions.
◆ Yume ◆
We really looked like a couple.
So I thought as I stood next to Mizuto, who paid for the tickets.
Isn’t an aquarium a place for couples or families? Why did this guy bring me to this place? It’s not like we’re dating—ah, no…I think we’re dating?
I couldn’t remember going on any decent-looking date even when we’d been a couple. There was the summer festival before we officially started dating, the Christmas lights, and…
Anyway, I had to remain on guard the other time. I was shocked to be praised just now, but I didn’t know what he was planning.
That’s why I had to be cautious.
“It’s kind of dark here. Don’t get lost.”
“I get that, I’m not a kid.”
Mizuto merely nodded, and slowed himself to keep pace with me as we walked in the slightly dim aquarium.
I did look standoffish just now, didn’t I? Sarcastic? Annoyed? Did he forget about the damn smirk I always gave him? …I was all confused.
It seemed he was going to play the role of my boyfriend no matter what. If he was just doing this to raise my affection level, I’d be laughing till my teeth fell out.
Not to boast, but my resolve was hard as the ice of the South Pole. During our half-year cold war, my affection for him had fallen into the negatives. Don’t you try and shatter my resolve with that half-baked boyfriend act of yours!
If you’re going to try and rattle me because of this, fine, go ahead. It’ll be completely futile!
I was pulled by the shoulder.
“Ah, sorry.” He lowered his head in apology, and a pedestrian passed us by.
“Didn’t expect so many people at the aquarium. You didn’t bump into anyone?”
My shoulder! My ear! He just pulled me! He whispered to me! His face was really close! He smelled nice! Ahh, seriously! Couldn’t he give me a heads-up!? I needed to prepare myself first! He really was inconsiderate!
“…How long are you going to hold my shoulder?”
I tried to maintain a stoic look as I stared at Mizuto’s face up close. Wow, nice face. Such long eyebrows. Much thin lips. I was envious of his good skin. Couldn’t he just be like that all the time? No, if that happened, I might lose it.
Mizuto let go of my shoulder, somewhat awkwardly, and took half a step back. You don’t have to move that far. I coolly spread my hair behind my shoulder.
…He’s more capable than I thought. I should do this much for him at least.
◆ Mizuto ◆
I rang my friend, but a pig answered the phone.
“I’m going to have you deported one day.”
“That’s scary man! All I did was laugh like a disgusting otaku!”
“Right, prejudiced against otakus. Better get you deported.”
I was in the guys’ cubicle.
Not even half an hour into our date, I took an early bathroom break. Of course, I wasn’t emptying my bladder, but my mind.
How did couples around the world cope with such a difficult quest? I saw she was about to bump into someone and lend her a hand, but she just glared. We were looking at fish in a tank, and she glared at me from the side. I tried to have a conversation, and she glared at me. Our entire date was Unlimited Glare Works!
To be honest, death became pretty alluring.
The book that could best describe me at that point was ‘No Longer Human’. I’m going somewhere where there aren’t any women—no wait, that line shouldn’t be this shallow.
“Help me out, Kawanami, unless you want me to become Osamu Dazai.”
“Isn’t that great? You get to be a Bungo,” Kawanami said half-jokingly. “Huuuh? Nothing’s going on. Just look at the fish, shortstack.”
Was that Minami-san? That was a relief.
“Don’t you get it? The mood’s really bad here! I feel like my stomach’s going to be skewered!”
“Huh, really~? That what it looks like to you?”
“What do you mean, to me? Isn’t that the case?”
“Well, speaking as an observer, feels like you’re being a little jumpy there. Buhihohoho!”
This guy’s just laughing at someone else’s misfortune! You’re the one who started this mess!
“Anyway, all I can say is—I’ll leave the frontline decisions to you!”
“Don’t push the burden onto someone else! Do your duty as commander!”
“Oops, gotta hang up. A certain wild horse’s about to go crazy. I look forward to seeing your exploits!”
Commander Kawanami hung up on me. If this was a war chronicle then, at the rate we were going, he’d end up shivved by his subordinates. I’ll remember this.
I sighed, and held my smartphone.
I was starting to get confused by this date’s purpose…was that bastard just toying with me?
And anyway, why did I have to protect her? She’s the one who just had to befriend a dangerous nutjob! She wasn’t my lover, so why did I have to worry about her!?
Utterly furious, I left the toilet.
…Well, no matter the outcome, I was the one to suggest the date. I felt restless, though, since she wound up spending her day off with me, and I couldn’t just end the date on that note. Why had I not questioned a thing up to that point…?
We were supposed to meet again at the vending machine near the toilet. I figured she was getting impatient, since I wound up grumbling to Kawanami a fair bit, so I resolved myself to endure her ramblings as I went there.
I looked right, left, and forward.
Nobody was at the vending machine.
I turned around. There was a long queue outside the female toilet, but I didn’t see Yume there.
I waited for a while, and didn’t see a girl dressed like a princess.
◆ Yume ◆
My phone rang.
I was in a corridor with water tanks on both sides. I really didn’t want to, but I had to answer it.
“Oy? Where are you now?”
I froze. There were a bunch of unfamiliar fish swimming in the tanks next to me.
I really had reservations about it, but I had no choice, I had to explain everything.
“……I don’t know.”
There were too many at the female toilet, and I was unenthused about joining the long queue. In a moment of folly, I thought of visiting another toilet. I thought it would be fine as long as I could return immediately.
There were three points of miscalculation. First, the other female toilets were further than expected. Next, the layout of the aquarium was more complicated than expected. Last, I was bad at reading maps. The last bit wasn’t even a miscalculation. I could read a map in mystery novels!
So that’s how it was…I didn’t want to admit it, but I got lost.
Ahhhhhhhh…! Why am I always like this…!? Don’t go anywhere if you don’t know the place well! Don’t plan things you can’t do! Why don’t I learn!? Why!?
I whispered, tormented by my regret. Ahh, here comes the hurricane of sarcasm…I could imagine that face getting ready to insult my personality. However, I couldn’t defend myself over this matter. I could only endure. I resolved myself.
But… the voice I heard from the other end was─
“…No, it’s not your fault. I’m partially to blame for not noticing.”
─it was kind and gentle.
He was consoling me with a tone completely different from the Mizuto Irido I knew of.
…My heart trembled.
It wasn’t like I was happy, or disgusted, okay?
I merely felt a sandstorm rumbling in my heart.
“Lemme think…tell me what kind of fish are in the tanks. I’ll try to find—”
“—It’s weird.” Finally at my wits end, I blurted. “This…wasn’t supposed to happen.”
I said something I shouldn’t have.
Only after I said it did I realize.
But it was all in hindsight. No point crying over spilt milk. I said it.
I knew that.
My ears and my heart were aching from the silence coming through the phone. In a mere three seconds or so, I would have lost it. I put the phone down, and hung up.
I looked up at the ceiling lit by the dim lights, and sat on the bench.
I messed up.
I was bad at talking, so why did I always say such unnecessary stuff…?
What exactly did I want from that man? If I just wanted him to get along with me like we were family, then there him being nice shouldn’t have been a problem.. In fact, it should’ve been desirable.
In fact, today’s Mizuto…felt really nice.
It felt a lot better than him just dripping with sarcasm, than the torrent of insults. It felt a whole lot better than us despising each other and feeling all vexed.
It sounded like I was hoping for him to show disdain.
What did I actually want?
What did I actually want him to become?
—Did I not break up with him because I hated that?
◆ Mizuto ◆
I wandered the aquarium aimlessly, anxiety gripping my heart.
During the half year when our relationship was on its last legs, my disgust of the woman called Yume Ayai would increase by a point every day. Every action and word left me increasingly vexed.
And that was the part that pained me more than anything else.
She was the one I once loved, I once treasured. My feelings for her became frustrated by the day, until they finally turned to hatred. It was a pain unsurpassed by anything.
That’s why I broke up with her.
It was fine as long as we were not lovers, no matter how I hated her—after all, that was common.
—This…wasn’t supposed to happen.
This should have happened…did you think the other relationship’s better?
Do you think it’s better for us to continue that relationship of just hating, despising, and hurting each other?
Was it my fault to suggest that we break up?
Was I just being troubled?
Before I knew it, I stood in the middle of the passageway, while the families and couples passed me by.
…If that’s the case, why didn’t you tell me?
Do you think I’m bothered that you don’t want to break up now?
Speaking of which, something similar happened before.
She got lost, and I went to find her—the same thing was happening again.
Ah yeah, it happened before we officially started dating.
It was the first date of my life.
◆ Yume ◆
It might have been the first time ever that I gathered my courage.
We were just chatting away in the school library every day, but I gathered my courage to invite him out to the local summer festival. In hindsight, given his tendency to avoid crowds like the plague, he was so unsuited to such a place. However, he’d still put at least a point in his courtesy stat, so he smiled and accepted my invitation.
The summer festival came, and there were more people than we expected.
As expected, I got lost.
On my first ever date, I got lost. Time ticked away without mercy, and the geta became torture devices, causing blisters on my feet. Put it all together, and it was my biggest embarrassment yet.
I barely managed to break away from the crowds, and crouched between the stalls; that was when Irido-kun contacted me. He was worried about me, and I snivelled away as I kept apologizing.
—I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I caused you trouble…
He had me wait where I was, and hung up.
…Surely I infuriated him..
I was increasingly despondent as I thought about it.
It was too embarrassing. I was so slow, so incompetent, and things just never went as planned…I thought I was fine this time, but…I ended up like this again.
For a long time, I hated myself. Others breezed through the things that seemed impossible to me. Conversations that came easy to others were difficult for me, and I couldn’t live like everyone else… Even my father had gone.
At the very least, I just wanted to live without causing trouble for anyone.
At the very least, I didn’t want to be a burden to the one I loved.
That was supposed to be the case, but I got greedy, insatiable and conceited—and ended up like this.
The noise gradually became more and more distant, and it felt like my consciousness was seeping into the ground. Well, that was all right. I’d be more than happy to sink into the ground and disappear.
It was a blessing that someone like me would disappear from this world.
I distanced my heart.. I built a Great Wall in my heart, so that I wouldn’t build any relation with the world, so that I wouldn’t cause trouble to others—
And then a drink can appeared before me.
I lifted my face. Irido-kun was looking down at me, smiling.
He handed the can to me, and knelt before me, while I was still curled up.
He stared at my eyes, while being at level height with me.
—To be honest, looking for you in the crowd wore me out. And hearing your sobs over the phone mentally drained me.
—But…there’s no illusion destroyed here. It’s not like I don’t understand you.
I looked towards the can he gave me…and saw it was the tea I had once said was nice.
—I already know how hopeless you are, and how clumsy you are. Today, I also learnt you get lost easily. But I still came despite knowing all that.
Irido-kun shoved me the can of tea. There weres quite a few droplets condensed on the can. It was cold.
—You don’t have to be scared…keep causing me trouble. It’s fine.
I held the can with both hands, and lowered my head.
I could not look at Irido-kun’s face, lest something would explode, so it seemed. It felt like I would lose control of something; I felt like I would show him something more embarrassing.
I put my finger into the can ring, trying to cool my unbelievable heated face…but.
—………I can’t open it…
Irido-kun showed me a kind smile.
—Give me that.
This one incident turned the supposedly horrible first date into an irreplaceable memory.
I definitely have to come again next year. That was what I thought back then. I resolved myself never to get lost again, to enjoy the summer festival with him.
—But I never got that rematch.
That conflict happened before the summer vacation.
We were no longer planning for dates. We never managed to make any promises during the summer break that lasted more than a month.
Despite that, I did show up at that summer festival.
I went through the crowds alone, and crouched at the place he found me a year ago. I kept looking and looking at the crowds before me—but obviously, nobody came to me.
If we never had that argument.
So I thought. I imagined him and I walking together in the crowds—
…Seriously, I was dithering too much.
It had been so long, and I was still thinking about the hypothetical, but of course, the theoretical zero was nothing in reality.
Ultimately, we never made a promise, yet I continued to cling onto the wonderful memories, hoping to be found. It was just ridiculous.
If I really wanted to make amends with him, all I needed to do was pick up the phone and call him or something, and personally convey my feelings to him.
And during the time I wasn’t able to do so, the feelings between us were over.
……Let’s go home.
I was sicked and tired of watching couples and families at the aquarium. I’d expertly gotten lost again, but if I just followed the crowd, I could probably find the exit. With that thought in mind, I raised my head…
And then, a drink can was held out to me.
I lifted my head.
I saw Mizuto Irido.
He looked down at me, smiling, and looked so handsome in a way so unlike him. He handed me a can, the same can of tea as back then.
Then, with a smile overflowing with sarcasm and a voice devoid of sarcasm, he said these words.
“I’ve come to pick you up, Princess. Do you need to find your bearings?”
◆ Mizuto ◆
It was a mischief insult on my part to erase the goodwill she had till this point. Yume widened her eyes in surprise.
During that summer festival, I looked for her while meandering through the crowds I so disliked, and heard her cries over the phone. I opened the can of tea for her.
For my side, there was nothing about her that had grown more likeable.
I was fed up and tired, and she never did anything to make me like her more—objectively looking at it, that date was a colossal failure.
But seriously, I wondered why…I wanted to be with this girl ever since that date—that was what I felt back then.
I didn’t know if it was my desire to protect her. But I might have been envious of her, given how she was able to show her weakness to others so openly—
Anyway—the moment I saw her, I realized something.
The name of the girl on the bench was Yume Irido.
The new stepsibling I just had.
She was definitely not Yume Ayai.
An existence I had no memories of.
Yume saw the can I handed to her, the thin condensed layer still on it, and received it with two hands.
“Good work. You should look to fix your reading hobby,” she said, without any of the weakness she showed before, a mischievous smile on her face.
“What are you saying, you idiot? Let’s settle this with a Biblio battle.”
“I’ll attack first. Ango Sakaguchi’s ‘The Non-serial Murder Incident’.”
“I’m next then. Mori Ōgai’s ‘The Dancing Girl’.”
“Don’t remind me of that scumbag Toyotarou!”
“Isn’t ‘The Non-serial Murder Incident’ just a buzzsaw of scumbags too!?”
“Does it matter when everyone dies anyway!?”
After this somewhat casual greeting. I sat down next to Yume.
She looked at the sealed wet can in her hands, its ring still intact. She inserted her slender finger into it.
After a little resistance from the ring, there was a pop, and air flowed in.
She opened it easily, without assistance from anyone else.
I too opened my can, and we quenched our throats.
The couples and families continued to move along. Which of these groups do we belong to? So I thought. Were we a couple, family, or something else?
When Yume Ayai used to sit next to me, I would find myself unwittingly tense.
My heart would pound wildly, my palms would get sweaty, and I would freeze all over.
But at this point—my heart remained calm, even though the same woman was next to me.
I didn’t feel any need to make her like me.
I—we—were already liberated from that obligation.
Yume moved her mouth away from the can, and said, “Don’t you think there’ll be a corpse floating in the tank there?”
I too put down my can, and responded.
“How about you get your mystery-obsessed brain checked out? That’s what someone who barely survived a supernatural phenomenon and lost her mind would say.”
“What, you never had such a thought? Like, you see that sharp antenna-like thing on the GIon Festival Yamaboko Float! Don’t you think ‘it’ll be really interesting if a corpse’s impaled on there’?”
“I never thought of such a dangerous thing, and that’ll get me hit by karma. Even if I did, that’s just on the level of ‘a man-eating shark suddenly appearing in the Kamogawa river and eating a couple sitting there’.”
“Your delusion’s more dangerous than mine! And how can there possibly be a man-eating shark in such a shallow river?”
“Sharks possess endless abilities!”
“Not at all! They’re just fish!”
“Alright. Let’s go check it out then. Since this is an aquarium, I’ll make you shiver at the endless ability of sharks, and kneel before them.”
“How is this guy having such confidence…that’s more arrogant than a murderer impersonating a famous name and giving notice before the act.”
We stood up, and tossed the emptied cans into the nearby trash bin.
I see, so I thought.
The moment we had no obligation to like each other, we lost the obligation to hate each other—we were just stepsiblings who once dated.
By that logic, it’s a lot better than the rotten relationship we had when we were still dating.
We cursed for no reason.
And felt no pain.
◆ Yume ◆
“Kyaa!? The water’s flying!”
“Oy you! Don’t just hide behind me so naturally!”
“This wall’s really noisy. Now I can’t hear the dolphins!”
“Seriously, this woman’s saying that the dolphin sounds are more important than her older stepbrother’s!? Here’s your punishment! Fanservice skirt!”
“Wait, no no no no! Not in these clothes today you idiot idiot idiot idiot!!”
Mizuto and I had fun at the aquarium, having made full use of the entrance fee.
We healed our souls with the cute penguins, used each other as shields during the dolphin performances, and had lunch at the indoor restaurant. Of course, we were cursing at each other the entire time.
We made a detour to the bookshop, bought books, and reached home in the evening.
“We’re back~” we called out, sounding completely exhausted, but there was no reply from the living room. It appeared mom hadn’t returned.
“Haa. I feel tired for some reason. Shouldn’t have worn clothes I ain’t used to.”
Mizuto removed his socks behind me, rubbing his shoulders and rolling his neck.
Ahhh…so that was the end of this getup? I would be lying if I said I didn’t have any lingering regrets about that. It was him after all; even if I asked him to, he’d firmly insist on never dressing up like that again.
Well, I was indifferent. To be honest, I was getting a little tired of seeing him like that. Enough eye-candy for the day.
I should head to my room and change—so I thought as I walked to the stairs.
“…Alright, whoah. I didn’t expect Kawanami to message me so much on LINE.”
Mizuto was probably headed to the basin to wash his hair off, only to stop and check his phone.
And then, while checking the phone—
He pulled out a case from his pocket.
And what he pulled from inside—were black-framed glasses!
Oh yes…he had a habit of putting on blue-light glasses when using the PC or phone at home!
And at that point.
He’d become the embodiment of my delusions, the college home tutor!
—Put that medal to the metal!
His intellectual flair accelerated when he put on the glasses, and something just snapped in me.
“…Seriously, why’s that guy getting all agitated…haaa. Anyway, let’s wash my hair—”
I grabbed Mizuto’s shoulder right when he reached his hand for the bathroom door handle, and tugged at it with all my mind.
Mizuto looked over his shoulder in shock. The eyes beyond his glasses were widened completely.
“Huh, eh? What? Stop?”
“No-not your hair. Don’t clean it up. Leave it!”
My words were all jumbled up, but it seemed I managed to convey my intent. The eyebrows beyond the black glasses frowned.
“Don’t clean my hair…why?”
Because it really suits you with these glasses!
Of course, I couldn’t say that.
Th-think…! This isn’t the time for my brain to go numb! I need to prove that I’m not in middle school anymore. Quick, think of something, some way to continue enjoying this intellectual, lethargic-looking boy who looked so great with such glasses…!
My brain cells were running at a never before seen efficiency. After digging through my memories, I finally thought of something.
Right, this is it!
“I-it’s the underwear penalty! As the older sister, I’m going to record my little brother in such dashing clothes!”
◆ Mizuto ◆
Each side had one chance to give an order, as long as it didn’t violate public decency.
Using the right I obtained from the underwear incident, I managed to get Yume to go on a date, but Yume hadn’t used her order.
And I forgot all about that, until just then…
I never thought it would be used in this manner however.
“Sit on the sofa. Yes. Then, fold your legs. Yes! Put this bunkobon on your knee! Yes yes! Now elbow on other knee, cheek on hand! Yes yes yes yes!”
Snap snap snap snap! The sound effects kept coming from her phone.
Front, right, left, slightly low. I just remained seated as I was, like a fortune cat, cheek on hand, as I endured this stiff pose.
“Ehe, ehehe. Ehehehehehe……!”
Yume was showing such a relaxed face after all.
She looked happier than she did after our first kiss.
“…Say, should you really be lusting after your little stepbrother like that, sis?”
“Huh? What? Can you stop getting carried away? You look just a little cool, okay?”
“Oooh, that thing figure and the flowing hair and those long fingers and the little bad boy look really land in all my strike zones perfectly but then there’s all the things I really can’t say out loud here!”
Seemed like she was really into this.
I’d expected her to think poorly of this outfit, but it looked like stylist Kawanami did a perfect job.
Despite that, I was starting to get a little embarrassed, so I turned my face aside, and moved my hand from the cheek to my mouth. I didn’t know what nerve I struck, but the snapping sounds from the camera got increasingly frenetic.
My back was unbearably itchy…well, I guess Kawanami’s words weren’t for naught.
“Ehehehehehehe…I have a handsome guy on my phone now…”
Yume had a lovestruck look on her face as she stared at the photos and her phone, and I got the urge to throw in a little freebie. With a half-joking smile, I said,
“You’re fine with photos only?”
Now there’s a conceited guy.
“Now that you have the chance, shall I listen to another one of your requests, sister?”
“Eh? …R-really!? Anything!?”
“If it’s within my capabilities.”
“Th-then, then then!”
Her eyes were sparkling, and she sat on the L-shaped sofa.
“I’ll sit here, you embrace me from behind, and whisper something in my ear!”
“…What’s that about?”
“I-it’s just the penalty! Nothing to do with my interests! Of course it’s a younger brother’s duty to gently embrace his older sister from behind like this!”
It’d be impressive if such a duty truly existed.
…But well, she had the right to order me. I had to do as she ordered. I had to.
I got up, went around, and sat behind Yume on the sofa. Even from behind, I could see her getting all jittery, and I too ended up tense for some strange reason.
What should I say…? Probably a line from a shoujo manga…hmmm…
I excavated such a line from the few shoujo manga I knew of that would fit this description. Do I really have to say this? What kind of guy would say this kind of stuff? Aaah, seriously! This is too embarrassing!
◆ Yume ◆
I had a feeling that I just made an unbelievable request in the spit of the moment, but it didn’t matter.
What would he say to me? With what tone? I was looking forward to it.
The moment of restlessness continued. After I moved myself for the third time, I sensed that he had made up his mind. It’s finally here. My heart raced faster. Uh oh. I was excited. I was really stiff—at this moment.
He gently held my shoulders from behind, like wings wrapped around me.
And then, I could sense his lips up close as he whispered in my ear with that clear, thick masculine voice, which only I could hear.
“(—I caught you).”
I don’t have any recollection of what happened after that.
◆ Mizuto ◆
I felt a strong sense of regret all over me the moment I said those words. What in the world did I just say…? Aight, Imma become shark meat.
But. But really. I said it. I said it. I said what you wanted! With a really sweet voice! Come on, just laugh all you want! I’m ready!
Yume placed her white hand on my hand that’s on her shoulder.
She turned her head around, and looked at me up close with her moist black eyes. She gently muttered, as though keeping a secret from the entire world.
“(—I got caught).”
I don’t have any recollection of what happened after that.
◆ Yume ◆
Just like that, the impromptu date at the aquarium ended with the tragedy of two corpses in the living room.
Despite that, there were still many unsolved mysteries. First off, what was with the loafers at the entrance? What was the reason for Mizuto asking me out on a date, dressed fancily like that? Also, it was one thing if it was just me, but why’d Mizuto end up expiring in the living room as well? What did I do?
It was unprecedented for there to be so many unknowns. If this were a mystery novel, it was a failure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I had the ideal handsome guy saved on my phone.
“…Mind not fawning over my picture while I’m right in front of you?”
I compared the Mizuto in his plain, shoddy mode with the handsome home tutor (Mizucool) on my phone.
“…Say, can’t you just isekai into this instead?”
“I can do that without dying, right!?”
Eh~ no no, that’s impossible. He’s of a completely different species.
According to him, that getup was Kawanami-kun’s handiwork. I really should have him do that again. Mass production wasn’t just a fantasy now. One day, I would print the photo out and paste it on the ceiling above my bed. Ehehehe…
“…You have a habit of running wild once you get excited.”
“Huh? When was I excited?”
“Look, you can’t be that oblivious.”
“I don’t want to hear that from you. You don’t know how fine your face is.”
“Say, how are you still keeping up your honor student act?”
I had to admit, I never knew what I would do when I was excited, but it wasn’t so bad some gloomy loner had to worry about me.
We were on the way to school on Monday, and Minami-san started chatting with us friends.
“Anything happen on the weekend~?”
“I’ve been at work.”
“Seriously? I slept the entire weekend.”
“I’m so jealous~!”
“What about you, Yume-chan?”
“Mostly the same. I’ve been reading at home.”
“So intellectual~! That’s just like you, Irido-san~!”
There wasn’t a need to mention anything about the aquarium date with my little stepbrother.
There wasn’t a need to enlist others’ help. The ideal daily life I had in middle school would continue.
◆ Mizuto ◆
No dream comes without cost.
Only by paying that cost, through offer or sacrifice, could the future we wished for become reality.
The real annoying part was that these dreams also came with upkeep costs. People had to keep sacrificing to maintain and protect those dreams.
I witnessed a dream-like scene of Yume Irido chatting happily with several friends, and realized that ridiculous joke of a strategy actually worked.
Ever since that date, Minami-san never approached me.
Kawanami had been watching her, and I was told “Looks like it’s all clear now. She’s not doing that again! Serves her right!” Coast’s clear.
Despite that, I had to settle this once and for all.
She probably felt the same, and gave me a look when noon break came.
I finished my bento quickly, and arrived at the library. This was where she’d proposed to me.
We were in a corner of the library, opposite the entrance. The place was mostly surrounded with bookshelves, and Akatsuki Minami was disguised as a book girl, waiting for me.
“Sorry! I overdid it when I intruded upon your house!”
She said as she clapped her hands together, lowering her head deeply.
“I didn’t mean any harm! You were so careless that you forgot to lock the door, and I couldn’t resist!”
“Can I say it’s weird how you managed to hear I hadn’t locked the door?”
Clearly she intended to sneak into my house, okay?
Minami-san stared at my face worriedly through the plain looking black-green glasses.
“…Will you tell Yume-chan about what I did?”
Logically, I should be doing this.
She was a stalker, a real criminal. Nevermind Yume, I had to inform the police.
“…Well, that’s fine. Just watch yourself next time.”
I looked beyond the window, and fiddled with my bangs.
“…Well, I just don’t want anything drastic to happen to her.”
Appearing in my mind was the sight of that woman chatting nonchalantly with her friends.
A certain girl who bawled her eyes out because she got lost was happily chatting with her classmates in school. I knew how many sacrifices she had to make.
“…Hmmm, I see.”
She said with much intent, and gave a very conflicted smile.
“But I won’t thank you though.”
“Please do. Thank me with tears in your eyes.”
“Don’t wanna~ I don’t want anything drastic to happen~”
I didn’t understand what she was saying. Minami-san looked around, and I sighed.
“…Say, what were you thinking, putting a fifth chair at my dining table?”
“Eh? What do you mean, the fifth chair?”
“Sorry, I was just joking! But well, I was just fooling around, you know? Ah seriously, I was so embarrassed, so I tried to pull a horror flick move to misdirect you~! Don’t take it so seriously~!”
Minami-san put her hands on her face bashfully. Be considerate to my heart here!
“I’m really sorry! I’ll watch myself and visit as a proper friend!”
“Oy, you don’t look like you’re reflecting on your actions and moving away from me by a bit.”
“Or maybe we can live together once I get married with you, Irido-kun~!”
“You haven’t given up on that!?”
That’s not what you said, Kawanami!
Minami-san raised her pink lips and declared,
“The best way to defeat a love rival is to pair the love rival with someone else—right?”
After school, I started a strategic meeting on how to deal with Akatsuki Minami.
Of course, the participants were Kogure Kawanami and me.
“But to be honest, I can’t do anything if she doesn’t do any actual damage. Might take a few more times!”
“Don’t try to end this meeting immediately, you damned stalker.”
“I prefer ‘love ROM specialist’.”
“Read Only Member Specialist. Lurker. Someone who just watches and doesn’t do anything.”
So in other words, he wasn’t going to fall in love, he was just going to watch. No wonder he didn’t have any girl around him.
“Well relax. I’m pushing you and Irido-san together! The other girls approaching you can die of cardiac arrest for all I care!”
“Oy, we got another dangerous person here!”
“Don’t think you can pass it off as a joke.”
“Let’s not talk about the other Mizuto Irido ships here.”
“You’re not even trying to misdirect me…”
“If that woman does anything bad again, look for me. I think I’ll be more helpful than anyone else when it comes to Akatsuki Minami.”
I stared intently at my reliable friend’s frivolous face.
…I thought about it before, and what he just said turned that thought into belief.
“…Just to ask you something, Kawanami.”
“Did you—get hospitalized before?”
Kawanami paused, put his elbows on the table as he held up his face, and gave a very conflicted smile.
That smile—was so similar to Akatsuki Minami’s.
“Yeah. During middle school.”
…Ahh, as expected.
Seemed like this guy’s a reliable comrade of mine.
Having understood this, I gave him a weary, wry smile.
“We really suffered.”
“Yep, we really did.”
I truly felt that having a girlfriend was a grave mistake.