During the last culture festival of junior high school, you were laughing happily with your friends.
I ran to the rooftop to escape. I looked down at the bustling festival, while the noise and commotion faded away, the buzz in my chest finally subsided.
This is fine.
This is fine for me.
It’s okay for us to be this way.
Everything that had happened up until now was a mistake. It’s just a duck and a swan being together as kids.
Yes, of course I’m the swan. You’ll say it’s you, though.
That’s why this is fine.
How can we stay together if we can’t even share this beauty?
…I’m sorry, Ayai, I’m really sorry.
I could only apologize in my heart.
I knew that I should have said something else to you.
From a year ago until now, I’ve been trying to define myself.
I knew there was a gap between me and her, so why did I drag out the breakup until graduation?
Why did the words and gestures that I used to like suddenly become so alien to me?
There must have been a coexistence of fondness and dislike in me. It was true that I liked you, and it was also true that I disliked you, and though contradictory, they were both right.
It was painful. It was suffering. It made me sad.
The friction created by the contradictions grinded at my spirit for a long time…
That’s why I was so delighted when I finally said goodbye.
If we weren’t lovers anymore,
I would suppose that meant I didn’t like her.
The contradiction was gone, and so was the conflict.
That’s why, compared to before, it was easier for us to accept the fact that we became stepsiblings.
There is no contradiction between being family and hating each other.
‘I broke up with her because I disliked her. I didn’t doubt the decision I made.
That summer day, everything went wrong.
Your face was lit up by fireworks, and distorted that definition of mine.
Please tell me it’s all a lie. Please tell me it’s just a dream.
Otherwise, what was the point of our breakup?
What was the point of all that suffering, pain, and sorrow?
We broke up because we hated each other, right?
Why does your face burn so brightly in my mind—
“This concludes the Rakurou High School culture festival for this year. Thank you for coming.”
The moment I heard the school announcement, “Haa…” I let out a deep sigh of relief.
We ran out of food, tea leaves, beans, and time, and the busy culture festival is finally over.
I felt like I was working part-time. Well, it wasn’t so bad, just because I didn’t have a boss or a senpai to worry about.
I was sitting idly at a table with no customers, and felt a cold can against my cheek.
I turned around to see Akatsuki in a class T-shirt.
The little girl sat down in front of me and opened her own can. Orange juice. She handed me a can of coffee.
“…I’ve been grinding coffee beans all day, and now I have to drink canned coffee?”
“I thought you might want some.”
She really understood me well. I opened the pull tab of the canned coffee.
I let the bitter and sour taste, which wasn’t really high class, linger on my tongue. Akatsuki and Irido-san, who often hang out with Sakamizu, showed up with convenience store bags full of juice and snacks, and were handing them out to their classmates. This canned coffee must have been part of those supplies.
“How was the culture festival?”
Akatsuki’s voice reached me, mixed with the voices of her classmates who were in high spirits.
The familiar voice I had heard since childhood just resounded in any environment for some strange reason.
“It was fun. The escape game by the second years in particular was a masterpiece.”
“Oh, you went there? I too went with Maki-chan. We ran out of time though.”
“Huh. I guess the brain’s as tiny as the height huh. We cleared it.”
“What does that mean, small face? You had five people, we had two.”
“…? Did I say there were five of us?”
Akatsuki awkwardly averted her eyes. We must have crossed paths at some point.
“I wonder what happened to Irido and the others. I’ve been so busy preparing for the stall that I haven’t been able to talk much.”
“You didn’t have much to say. They went on a date…with Higashira-san though.”
“Huh? What’s with her!? That’s not a date, is it!?”
“It can’t be helped. That overprotective Irido-kun wouldn’t just leave Higashira-san alone.”
“That’s true, but…”
“It seems like they had some alone time while patrolling for CulFes, so that’s fine, right?”
It’s really frustrating, but I guess that kind of squirming is one of the best parts of love.
“… Well, there’s still the after party, and Higashira’s probably going home soon anyway.”
“I guess~. Well, I don’t think he’ll be working on CulFes much longer. …”
What would I do—
Akatsuki said, as if she had just seen the passing thought in my mind.
“Do you have an appointment with…anyone?”
“And you call yourself popular, right? Did anyone ask you out?…Like Nishimura-san?”
“Are you trying to pick a fight with me? If she’d confessed to me like that, I’d be lying in the infirmary right now.”
“Then…I’ll go with you.”
She said that with the sunset shining on her back through the window.
The backlit, shadowy eyes stared at me as if they were trying to figure out what I was looking at.
The skin of my arm tingled with fear.
It’s like a confession—
“And then you won’t have to puke, right?”
“As a childhood friend, I’m offering to keep you safe from women. I’ll take that much responsibility since I’m the cause of your condition…Huh?”
Akatsuki tilted her head to the side and grinned at me, who had looked back at her.
“Did you think I was going to confess?”
“…Of course not.”
“You’re really overly self-conscious huh. That’s disgusting.”
“I told you there’s no way!”
Kukuku. Akatsuki giggled victoriously.
…Who’s the overly self-conscious one? Dammit.
“This concludes the Rakurou High School culture festival for this year. Thank you for coming.”
The announcement echoed in the evening sky, and the visitors streamed out of the main gate.
I saw that there was a phone notification, “I’m going home soon! It was fun~!” and saw the LINE message from Madoka-san.
With that as the backdrop, the preparations for the night party proceeded in a lively fashion.
Some of the stalls were removed to make room in the schoolyard, and large pieces of wood were piled up.
Mizuto, though not at the center, was among them…but I was the only one who knew that his smile wasn’t genuine.
I might have been overconfident.
I gained a little understanding during summer vacation, at the countryside…and because of that, I got arrogant, thinking that I could help him…
I didn’t realize that he wasn’t asking for help.
I didn’t realize that it was… just a unilateral wish on my part.
I just felt good that the one I loved, my family, my ex, was accepted by others… I was just using him to satisfy my stupid need for approval.
Up until now, he’s been there for me.
He was trying to save face and keep me from making waves at CulFes. He was putting himself down for my sake.
At this point, I realized.
That’s why he always finished his work early. That’s why he went to meet Higashira-san even though he was busy. It wasn’t because he was concerned about Higashira-san who had nowhere to belong to.
It was because he could be his true self in front of Higashira-san.
It’s because he didn’t have to worry about anyone else.
…He wouldn’t even show that to me, who’s supposedly family…to Mizuto I wasn’t someone he could talk to unless he put on a mask…
I felt nauseous at my own folly. I felt it would be embarrassing to even shed tears at this moment.
He’s so far away.
The man I once felt had reached me was so far away.
I felt it was reckless to even fall in love with him—
“I’m so embarrassed. …”
Isana, who had joined us after the preparations for the night festival, was red-faced and shivering for some reason.
She was holding a paper bag in her chest. She’s back in her uniform, so it’s probably the Dirndl that Minami-san dressed her in—
“…Wait, did you go back to the classroom in that outfit …?”
“I forgot about it! I realized it when my classmates told me…’it’s cute and adorable’, ‘looks good on you’, ‘boyfriend’s hobby’? I was teased a lot. …”
“That’s just a compliment—no, wait. They’re not coming after me, right?”
In this SNS era, she somehow started unnecessary rumors again—ahh, forget it.
Isana shoved the paper bag at me.
“Please return these clothes to Yume-san…. I was going to wash them and return them, but I don’t know how to…”
“Okay, got it.”
“Please don’t sniff it too much.”
“I won’t. I’m not like you.”
“Hiiee…I-I don’t know what you’re talking about~…”
You’re saying that now when you had once buried your face into someone’s pillow?
“Let’s go then.”
“Yes~. I’ve never been to a campfire before…are you going to dance?”
“I’m sure there will be guys who’ll do that. You aren’t one, but I think just looking at the big fire will be worth it. It’s like a bonfire.”
“That’s right! I’m sure you’ll be very excited to see a big fire~!”
“…I think it’s best not to give you any fire abilities.”
I grabbed Isana’s arm as she walked toward the stairs.
“Wait. Not that way.”
“Huh? Aren’t we going to the… schoolyard?”
“There’s a better place for us.”
I smiled at Isana, who blinked at me.
We’ve worked so hard. We should be rewarded this much at least.
“So, as the chairperson, I’d like to say—good job everyone!”
With Kurenai-senpai’s voice leading the way, the sound of clinking glasses echoed in the background.
We’re in the conference room used as the main base for the CulFes committee, and sweets and juice bought by the seniors were passed around. It felt like the launch of some nice little party, but they were planning to book out a restaurant for an after party after the festival. So this was just a prelude.
“Why, Yume-chan~! I went to the Taisho-Romantic cafe! It was so good!”
“T-thank you so much.”
“Huh? What happened to your brother~?”
“Ehh…well, he had other things to do.”
“Eh~? I see. That’s too bad…I wanted to talk to him a little more.”
Some girls led by Yasuda-senpai talked to me, and although I didn’t become a wallflower, there was a gaping hole in my heart.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk to the seniors like this during a party, and I would be too busy looking for a place to settle down.
This was supposedly growth.
I’ve become stronger. I’ve gotten better. I’ve improved…at living like a human.
…But why do I feel so empty?
I was surrounded by so many people, and yet the void of just one person was so big.
“Ahh, Yume-kun, good work.”
“Ahh…chairman. Good work.”
Kurenai-senpai came and sat down next to me. The suddenness of the situation made me nervous.
There were plenty of people to talk to, so why did she sit next to me?
Senpai paid no heed to the sweets before her, and looked right at me, smiling.
“The ‘chairman’ part is almost over though.”
“Ahh…so ‘Vice President’?”
“That, too, will soon be over. You can call me ‘President’ in the coming days.”
The incoming student council president Suzuri joked.
It’s amazing…she’s not nervous about becoming the president in the slightest. I wanted to be somebody confident like her…there’s no way I could be like her just by learning on the fly.
Once CulFes ends, I wouldn’t interact with Kurenai-senpai at all. I’d just be one student looking up to her. And when I thought of that, I felt sad.
“By the way, it seems like your brother hasn’t come.”
Kurenai-senpai said, looking next to me.
“Oh, yes. He’s—”
I opened my mouth to give the same explanation again,
“—I knew it, he’s that type.”
I shut my mouth once senpai muttered to herself.
What? That type of ….
“I suppose I should be sorry about this. I had considered that possibility—but either way, I thought it would be better than leaving it alone.”
“Wa-wait a sec. I don’t know what you’re talking about. …”
“Ahh, sorry, sorry. I was talking about how I tried to involve him.”
Senpai said, still unperturbed.
“I knew from his presentation that he didn’t like to fit in with the group. Nevertheless, it’s hard to be efficient without trying to negotiate with him, and I couldn’t leave someone as talented as him floating around, so I asked you to be the conduit—It was possible that he was lonely, but as most of us expected, he seems to be the type who gets stressed when surrounded by people. I failed by forcing him into an environment that he didn’t fit into without a tangible reward.”
“Senpai, did you know…? From the beginning ….”
I…was oblivious. I didn’t…realize that I was lonely inside, and I only thought it was convenient. And yet, senpai—
“No, I wasn’t the one who realized.”
Kurenai-senpai smiled in self-mockery.
“I might have been a bit arrogant. I don’t really understand other people—I’m the type of person who thinks that everything will go faster if I do it myself. I have this self awareness, but I just couldn’t fix it.”
“That’s why I left that part for Joe to handle. The analysis of your brother was done by Joe, not me.”
Joe…as in the Treasurer, Haba-senpai?
The unusually absent right hand of the Vice President was currently sitting alone in a corner of the conference room, sipping on a glass of juice.
Kurenai-senpai continued, her gaze fixed on that side.
“His conversational skills have degenerated to the point where one wouldn’t expect him to be civilized, but he does have good insight. He’s a master at observing people. If you ask him to look for the best in others, there’s nobody who can match him.”
She sounded a little boastful.
Kurenai-senpai continued to speak fluently, leaving no room for me to interrupt her.
“That’s probably why he has extremely low self-esteem. His description of Mizuto Irido-kun was basically ‘I’m annoyed that I’m looking at a superior version of myself’, but I don’t think so at all.”
No, Mizuto is definitely cooler.
That thought came instinctively, but I didn’t say it out loud. It was social etiquette.
“Maybe that’s why he told me to let him get along with the other CulFes members. Joe is the ‘really lonely’ type of person, and maybe he felt sympathetic for Mizuto-kun… I thought it was unusual for Joe to be mistaken, but I thought he was the same type of person as me, so—”
As I listened, I wondered if it was possible.
It was Haba-senpai who, through me, had tried to bring the other CulFes and Mizuto closer together. If that was a rare mistake for Haba-senpai, then—
“Could it be… that?”
“Was he trying to pull Mizuto away from you, Kurenai-senpai…you’ve been talking to Mizuto a lot.”
Kurenai-senpai looked puzzled, and tilted her head. I’d never seen her face like this before.
“He wanted to pull apart…? Between who?”
“Mizuto and senpai…I think.”
I-I didn’t want to have to go into more detail, but …!
“So …Haba-senpai said that Mizuto was like a superior version of himself, right? I think he was worried because a guy like that suddenly showed up, and you were actively trying to get him involved, Kurenai-senpai …”
“No, because he’s jealous!”
Argh goodness! I’m so embarrassed!
Kurenai-senpai kept her head tilted,
“Yes, I think so. …”
“……No, hahahaha. No way, that’s ridiculous.”
I’m so embarrassed~~~~~~~~!!!!
“I’m sure he’s jealous! It is true that Haba-senpai’s the expressionless type, but in that empty classroom, his ears were red!
“—Hmm?…Wa-wait a minute.”
“Did you… see that? In the empty classroom. …”
Uh oh. I just blurted …!
“I-I’m sorry. …! After I left the classroom, I heard the two of you talking. …!”
Kurenai-senpai turned away and hid her face from me.
“…No, don’t worry about it. It’s our fault for hiding in the first place.”
She then said that in a normal voice—but I noticed that her ears were turning red, just like Haba-senpai’s at the time.
“I’ll say this though! I’m not such a slutty woman by nature, you know!…It’s just that Joe doesn’t seem to get along with me….”
…Well you’re a girl…
Actually, it’s obvious now, but even someone so intelligent to be known as a genius would turn red when embarrassed—or rather, she realized how embarrassing that exchange with Haba-senpai in the empty classroom was.
…Does that mean she’s only playing that character in front of Haba-senpai?
“Erm…if you don’t mind.”
“Why do you like Haba-senpai?”
Kurenai-senpai turned around, her face still faintly red.
“…But I didn’t say I liked him, did I?”
“Erm…how did you come to be with him then?”
No, you said you were ‘in love’ with him in the empty classroom, I thought, but it was best not to go into that.
In that empty classroom, she explained what ideals were.
But if that was a persona made for Haba-senpai…there must be a more genuine, real reason.
Did she want to escape from reality…I really had the urge to hear such stories.
Senpai lightly shook her glass of melting ice.
“…There wasn’t really a trigger. There was just a boy with no presence, and a girl who happened to notice his capabilities. That ‘accident’ misled the immature and arrogant girl. That’s all I’m saying.”
… Immature, arrogant.
It’s just like me right now.
“Back when I was in middle school, I made a big mistake because I thought I was perfect and right. It’s a common adolescent thing, an inflated ego. That’s why I was looking for someone who could complement my shortcomings. It was that that moment…that a gloomy loner who had been paying attention to me said,”
—You’re being harsh with me. Everyone but you knows that I should be left alone. You can study, but how can you not know that much?
“I thought that I was the only one who understood, but I was told that I was the only one who didn’t understand. I was shocked…this fact alone was more shocking than anything else. I felt something pierce a deep, soft part of my heart…”
“… Still, you didn’t distance yourself from him, did you?”
“Of course not. It makes me angry! He couldn’t even talk to people properly, and yet he retorted at me!… At the same time, I realized this classmate was the one I was looking for. So, I tried to get him by any means possible, even if it meant using erotic tricks…”
Kurenai-senpai’s eyes moved.
Haba-senpai, who has no sense of presence, was easily lost in a crowded place like this.
But Kurenai-senpai wouldn’t be. She never looked to stand out.
Her presence just stood out immediately, as it has done so many times before.
No matter how many hundreds or thousands of people there are, there was no mistaking that face.
“…Really, it makes me angry. He is the only one who is so oblivious to my gaze.”
I smiled at her sultry words.
It wasn’t senpai, it wasn’t a genius, it was just a girl who was confused by her first love.
“Ahhh goodness! I just told an embarrassing story to my kouhai!”
I said to senpai, who started gulping down the juice in her hand.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone, everywhere.”
“…If that’s the case, I really respect the entire human race.”
It’s true. Goodness.
Even the smartest person in the world couldn’t handle it—there’s probably no one in the world who could handle it perfectly well.
Even if the other party was an ex.
“Whoa! It’s about to start!”
Someone said, looking out the window. That caused people to either gather around the window or hurry out of the meeting room quickly.
The windows facing the schoolyard were faintly dyed red. The campfire had been lit.
Looking over at it, I said to senpai,
“Why don’t you go with Haba-senpai, senpai? You’re actually lonely, aren’t you …?”
“…Yume-kun, you’re suddenly starting to look down on me, aren’t you?”
“I’d prefer to say that I’m starting to get to know you.”
With a sigh, Kurenai-senpai stood up.
“Well…, it’s okay to have at least one kouhai like that.”
“I didn’t talk to you about this kind of love story, you know.”
Looking at me with serious eyes as I sat down, senpai said.
“Yume-kun, as the next head of the student council, I have a favor to ask of you.”
When I heard this request, I knew that my fate had already changed.
As soon as she walked through the door, Isana looked around and then looked up at the night sky.
The autumn night breeze blew quietly through the air. It was a place far away from the hustle and bustle, the lights, and the presence of humans.
It was the rooftop of the school building.
“I’ve never been on the rooftop before. I didn’t know it was open~.”
“I heard it’s usually closed, but it’s only open during CulFes. I came here this morning, and I thought I could see the campfire from here.”
As we approached the wire fence, we could look down on the large bonfire set up in the middle of the schoolyard.
The fire was just lit up, and the red flames cackled away.
“It might look smaller than up close, but it’s nice and quiet here, too. Besides, we won’t be the target of unnecessary rumors.”
“That’s true. I feel more at ease here. Fufufu! Those people look like trash!”
“You’re getting excited, huh?”
It’s nice and quiet, but it’s chilly. “Here,” I handed Isana a can of hot milk tea from the vending machine, “Thank you,” Isana opened the tab, covered her hands onto the can and started to sip.
I open my own can of coffee, sip it, and look down at the schoolyard. A crowd of people had gathered around the campfire. They weren’t…garbage, but it’s hard to tell from here.
“The culture festival was pretty fun. It’s probably the first time I’ve enjoyed myself’.”
“What do you mean, “I enjoyed myself’?
“I don’t know how to express it, I guess. Just observing this atmosphere from outside is quite interesting, isn’t it? Even when I’m not the one participating.”
“…We really get along, you know.”
Personally, I didn’t mind culture festivals as long as I wasn’t forced to participate. It’s interesting to observe the school while it’s in an extraordinary state. I felt like an observer, watching animals, and it’s not something to be admired by the world.
“How did you spend your culture festival in middle school?”
“Basically, I spent the time reading light novels in class. What about you, Mizuto-kun?”
“I also spent my time reading novels in the classroom. I think it was a work by Yumeno Kyūsaku.”
“For me, the novel wasn’t published in book form last year.”
“So that’s also a light novel to you?”
“I guess~ culture festival makes me want to reread novels I like rather than ones I’ve never read. I wonder why though?”
“…Who knows? Maybe it’s because you don’t want to lose yourself in the mood of a culture festival.”
“And then, I find myself wanting to read something a little edgier, a little more minor. Why do you think that is?”
“How would I know? It’s just you wanting to assert yourself, isn’t it?”
“It’s weird, isn’t it, when you’re reading a web novel on your phone and the person beside you can’t even see what you’re doing~…”
I racked up my memory. When was the last time I read a novel by Yumeno Kyūsaku at a culture festival?
Last year was different. At any rate, I probably misread the author’s name.
Back then…I was sure I didn’t want to encounter the name ‘Yume’ again in that situation.
So, yes, even a year before that.
It was during my second year of middle school—right after I started going out with her.
We decided to hide the fact that we were dating from everyone, so of course we didn’t even think about going to the culture festival together.
But…it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t looking forward to spending the culture festival with my first girlfriend.
Inside, I really yearned for it.
So, maybe…it might have been a small, self-assertion.
Back then, she held a book with the words ‘Yumeno Kyūsaku’ printed on the cover.
“By the way, Mizuto-kun…”
Isana’s voice and gaze broke me out of my reverie,
“When is Yume-san coming?”
The question that followed practically froze me.
I didn’t know why exactly…ahh yeah, it’s not a strange question from Isana’s point of view. I didn’t say it was just the two of us, and it’s only natural to assume that Yume would be with us, given the way we went around the culture festival.
So, why did I feel as if she hit a sore spot?
“I forgot to tell you….she’s not coming, She got the CulFes party to attend to.”
Isana looked down at the can of milk tea and growled as if she wanted to say something, but … eventually kept her mouth shut.
I could easily see what she had swallowed.
“Didn’t… I tell you that I’m not attending the party?”
“You did… if I were in your position, Mizuto-kun, I wouldn’t attend. It doesn’t sound very interesting.”
…I knew she understood me after all.
I was really grateful with the fact that Isana’s attending this school, and that we got to know each other even though we are in different classes. That’s probably one of the greatest blessings in my life—
And at the same time.
“Yume-san must be lonely.”
It’s one of the greatest trials of my life.
She’s the only one who understood me better than anyone else, who empathized with me better than anyone else. It’s way too easy for her to dig out the things…that I had been hiding from myself.
I’m not sure if she’d have gone this far if it had been a while ago.
But, just the other day, I proved it myself. You and I, we’re still the same. So, there’s no need to be reserved.
“I was sure you’d be doing well for CulFes thanks to Yume-san. That’s why I was sure she would enjoy herself at the party…but she’d feel really lonely when the person she wants to be with isn’t with her.”
“…And that would be me?”
“You know that, don’t you? You just can’t admit it.”
Maybe I do.
“So, you want me to go to a meeting I don’t want to attend? And send you home alone?”
“You don’t want to … do you?”
“Of course not. Let me tell you, I care about you a lot.”
“…Hehe. I’m glad to hear that.”
Isana put her lips to the milk tea can.
“But I think…Yume-san wanted to be with you, Mizuto-kun, since you two had been working hard together for the past few weeks. Maybe it’s just my imagination though.”
“… Even if that’s the case.”
The black of the night sky was vaguely illuminated by the red of the flames.
“I’m sure…she should be able to get over that loneliness.”
I followed the other CulFes committee members, and went out to the schoolyard alone.
Red flames arose up the middle of the schoolyard, twinkling like stars and sending sparks of fire into the night sky.
I silently looked up from behind the crowd, and in the corner of my eye, I spotted someone familiar.
It was Akatsuki-san.
I opened my mouth, wanting to call out to her.
But I soon realized.
Next to her was Kawanami-kun.
The two of them were standing next to each other, discussing something. They weren’t holding hands, but they were just close enough that they could faintly feel each other’s breath and body heat.
They looked at each other when they talked. Once they were done, they turned to look at the flames again.
But I, the only one watching from the side, noticed it.
When Kawanami-kun was looking at the flame, Akatsuki-san was looking at Kawanami-kun.
When Akatsuki-san was looking at the flame, Kawanami-kun was looking at Akatsuki-san.
They were looking at each other’s profile, illuminated by the flame.
“Do you think that would be good for Yume-san, Mizuto-kun?”
I couldn’t help but nod firmly at Isana’s direct and straightforward statement.
“She’s fundamentally different from me.”
As I watched the sparks of fire fly up and disappear,
“We always seemed to be on the same page, but only apparently. We had very different tastes, even though we were book lovers. I like to be alone, but she was alone. It’s no wonder that she drifted away to a different community when she upgraded her skills. We were just two people who happened to be in the same place at one time or another.”
I was certain I knew that a year ago.
I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to drag my feet on this.
But no matter how difficult it was, I couldn’t bring myself to change.
“In novels, there are protagonists who grow up, right? A loner somehow ends up making many friends, or a human dismissed as incompetent rise to the top. I’ve always been unable to sympathize with such protagonists though. Because what they call growth is unmistakably self-destruction. Do they want to destroy themselves just because they want to have friends? Do they want to get to the top? If that’s what growth is, then what am I, a person who is satisfied with having no friends? What is it about me that doesn’t mind being at the bottom—do humans have to ‘grow up’ so much?”
I have no ego to destroy.
I have no status to grow.
I always wonder. I have no ideal. All I have is a sense of discomfort that I’m not like this, and no ideal of what I should be like. Even though I read so many novels, I have no desire to write something like this. There is nothing that comes out of me.
Everything is a patchwork.
I’ve stolen these elements from the novels I’ve read, from other people’s lives, and I’m grafting these humans together.
A person who has no levels will never level up. There are many novels that depict growth, but those people never actually grow. The novels never depict people who don’t have the talent to grow.
They say that anyone can become like this.
They don’t understand that there are people who are not included in that ‘anyone’.
“I’ve always been that kind of person. I can improve, but I can’t grow. I can’t change who I am, no matter what. I don’t think it’s wrong. It took me six months to realize that I was born that way…”
Even on my birthday, on Christmas, on Valentine’s.
I understood that something had fallen from my grasp…when I somehow felt okay about not doing anything.
Ayai and I are different people.
“I don’t think that’s bad. I don’t think either of us are inferior. We’re just different…do you understand, Isana? There are such humans. Such humans are fundamentally incapable of understanding those who are different.”
“…Yes. I understand.”
Isana affirmed without hesitation. That was a great relief for me.
“I was hurt a lot, too. I was also hurt a lot by the fact that I was ‘different’…and that people didn’t understand that I was ‘different’, until I met you, Mizuto-kun…”
“I know. That’s why—”
Isana stared intently into my eyes.
It’s like the words never came out.
“Indeed, I think that Mizuto-kun and Yume-san are ‘different’ people, in the way you think, live and perceive, completely different. If you follow Mom’s words that you should marry someone who is right for you, I don’t think you should marry…but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fall in love with someone like that, right?”
“…Why do you say so?”
“I don’t think it’ll work out if Mizuto-kun or Yume-san are dismissive and can’t understand people who are different. But, for example, a heterosexual person and a homosexual person can be friends. They may not be able to empathize with each other, but they can show understanding. Isn’t that right?”
“……I guess so.”
As another example—I don’t like mystery novels as much as Yume does.
But I can listen to Yume talk about mystery novels. I can’t relate to all of the fun she felt— but, that time’s never…
“If you look further into this, aren’t there many people of different heritages, environments and thought processes who end up liking each other? You’ve read plenty of novels, haven’t you, Mizuto-kun? Why do you think you can’t do it?”
Yeah, Isana—you’re right.
To a certain extent, I understood that she’s really the daughter of that Natora-san—your words were painfully on the mark.
But…that’s why I understand.
I knew I was twisted to an extent that I couldn’t be convinced by logical arguments..
“—Hey, Isana, what is ‘love’?”
That’s probably the question I’ve been hiding from myself.
“You say that different people can like each other—but is that the case of those people who don’t know what ‘like’ is?”
I watched from a bench at the edge of the schoolyard as the students spent their own time around the campfire.
Akatsuki-san and Kawanami-kun were there.
Kurenai-senpai and Haba-senpai were also there.
They were making noise, talking, and staring.
At the rising flames.
At the person standing next to them.
It’s not a lie.
The time I spent with Ayai. The feelings I had for her. All of it should not have been a lie.
But…it was enough.
It was enough to make me lose track of it.
I was irritated by the person I was supposed to love. It became painful to even look at each other.
Those six months were…enough to make me completely unaware of the feelings I once knew for sure.
I looked down at the blazing bonfire beyond the wire mesh.
I looked down at the students gathered around it.
“…I guess you don’t understand this, huh? I felt like a fool. I felt like all the things I’ve done up to this point…were so stupid. And when that happened, it’s too late for me. I couldn’t take anything seriously. I could only doubt. I just kept wondering if these feelings were real—or if they’re just a passing fancy.”
The more I thought about it, the less I understood.
The more I kept going, the more I didn’t understand.
I wasn’t talking about understanding or being understood.
It’s just that I didn’t understand myself.
“Can you answer me, Isana…? Can you explain—what is this ‘like’ that everyone in the world talks about?”
There’s no way you can do that. I was basically implying so.
But Isana looked up at the night sky, “Hmmm.” She murmured.
I guess I forgot about it after all.
She’s similar to me…but we’re by no means the same.
“So, let’s talk about me.”
“This is the story of when I realized that I liked Mizuto-kun. … By the way, it’s pretty embarrassing, so don’t ask me too many questions.”
I kept my mouth shut.
Isana, looking up at the night sky, began to speak calmly.
“To tell you the truth, it was only when Yume-san and Minami-san pointed it out to me that I noticed it clearly. I wanted to date and do ecchi with Mizuto-kun, if you know what I mean…but when I thought about it more, something crossed my mind at that time.”
“It was…your face, your sidelong face. When we were reading books together in the library, when we were returning home from school together—to my surprise, I recognized your sidelong face. That’s how much I was looking at your face, even though you weren’t looking at me.”
—When she looked so nervous at the phone lens while dressed in the Taisho-Romantic costume that suited her.
—When she stayed up late at night at her desk going over material for our class plans.
“That’s why…it might be that simple.”
—When she stared at the computer data with a serious face.
—When she chatted with the senpai while I carried the poster.
—When she held my hand and giggled impishly.
—When she stopped for a moment, and her face twisted in agony.
“I think the person you like is the sidelong face of the person you’ve seen the most.”
—We looked down at the schoolyard through the wire fence, not doing anything.
—My ears were red even though it was dark and hard to see.
One by one, I remember.
Today, I was able to see Mizuto’s sidelong face.
—He calmly diagnosed my blistered foot.
—He was serving customers with a professional smile belying his normal demeanour.
It may not have been the right thing to do.
But these happened today.
—He scowled when Madoka-san got involved with me.
—He looked a little remorseful when he saw Higashira-san’s cosplay.
—He pondered with a cool, collected expression when he saw the questions posed by the escape game.
—She was very busy, but she took her work very seriously.
—She looked at Chikuma, whom Madoka-san had brought to her, as if she were Chikuma’s own sister.
—She stared at the questions of the escape game, and frowned at the difficulty.
Memories came to me like a raging tide.
I remember. I remember. I remember.
I didn’t try to remember it, but I still did.
I didn’t feel like I was watching, but I did.
Selfishly. Unilaterally. Unnecessarily.
I was—looking at her so much.
I felt dizzy.
My vision darkened.
What should I do?
Ah—what should I do? What should I do? I don’t know what to do.
I didn’t know what to do.
Because, after all,
I…didn’t do anything.
“By the way, Mizuto-kun…there’s something I didn’t ask you earlier.”
Isana said absentmindedly as she leaned her back against the wire fence.
“Who confessed in middle school, Mizuto-kun or Yume-san?”
I sneered at myself.
“…Do I look like I’ll ever confess?”
“So who asked you out for your first date?”
“What about your first kiss?
“……The one who set the mood? She did.”
“The first ecc—”
“I told you I didn’t do it.”
Well, to be precise—I tried, but I failed.
I was the one who set up the situation…and did nothing.
“……I was the passive one the whole time.”
The words that came out of my mouth were basically a confession of my sins.
“I didn’t take the initiative to do anything. I just enjoyed her efforts. I just enjoyed the situations that occurred. When things got bad, she always tried to do something about it until the very last minute…but I didn’t do anything.”
It was a long, long period of self-harm.
I couldn’t admit that I was like this. I couldn’t allow myself to be like this. And I couldn’t forgive myself for dragging her into my self-loathing.
Now that I think about it, I was being spoiled.
I was spoiled by her hard work. I was spoiled by her kindness. That’s why I couldn’t accept the fact that she started interacting with other people even though they were just friends.
I hadn’t accomplished a single thing during the year and a half that I was Yume Ayai’s boyfriend.
“Hmmm…then, excuse me, can I say one more thing?”
Isana said like a detective in a drama.
“Which one of you—was the first to talk?”
─Do you like detective novels too?
There’s no way I could forget.
For me, it’s the biggest taboo of a memory—and yet the one memory I couldn’t rid myself of.
A trap set by God.
This is the moment when fate bared its fangs—and showed me a dream.
Even if it all started by chance—
It was …… me.
That was the one thing……I did.
I, who wasn’t able to do anything else…did that one thing alone.
“Uehehe…I guess it was the same case with me, wasn’t it?”
Isana smiled happily for some reason.
“It’s a shame then. If you hadn’t met Yume-san first, you might have gone out with me.”
I chowed down on something rising up from the back of my throat.
For a long time—a really, really, really long time, I thought it was a failure.
I thought the past year and a half was a failure on my part.
Yume mustered her courage to confess. She grew, she got happiness…but I thought it was a failure on my part because of my trivial possessiveness.
If it weren’t for that one comment, I wouldn’t be here now.
I’d never have entered this school, and I’d never have met Isana.
We would have become stepsiblings without knowing anything about each other.
That didn’t happen.
At this point, the reason why I was so touched by my friend’s kindness, why I remembered her sidelong face, why I was so elated and joyous.
It’s because I—talked to her.
That’s the least I could do.
I swallowed down my swelling emotions, and looked through the wire mesh.
There must be hundreds of these students. There’s no way I could tell them apart.
But I spotted the sidelong face—of the one person I knew most in this world.
Thus, that’s what I said to my best friend.
“I’ll make it up to you next time.”
“Hehe~♪ I’m looking forward to it!”
Then I left the rooftop.
It’s not—that I couldn’t say it then.
It’s that I want to say these words to her now.
The flames that were so big were finally burning out.
It was the end of the culture festival.
The weeks of preparation were really over.
Thinking about it, this may be the first time in my life that I have accomplished such a large task… I felt the tension relieved from me when I thought about it.
We have to clean up tomorrow, and then there’s the after party. It’s still too early to lose myself in this sense of accomplishment though…
Now then, I changed my mind.
If I stayed here alone any longer, my body would only get colder. I need to get to the others before I was late—
So I thought…and then I heard footsteps.
They slowly came to a stop next to me…and that person sat down on the same bench as me, about two palms apart.
And then he put his hand next to me, as if to fill the gap.
I put my hand next to his.
Our hands would cover each other if we reached out. But since we didn’t, we only felt the cold surface.
In hindsight, we always had this distance between us.
I had thought that we would stay like this forever.
It was the tip of my pinkie.
There was too little contact for me to feel his warmth, but there was contact.
Even so—neither of us could escape, and our fingertips were certainly touching.
“…You’re late. The fire’s going out, you know?”
I said as I stared at the fading bonfire.
“There’s nothing interesting about watching fire… I’m just here to get my homework done.”
As usual, he said curly.
I’m not sure if that’s a persona he made for my sake just to settle himself down.
If that’s the case…it really was crude.
He said a line that he usually never said honestly.
“For everything. You’ve taken care of me at CulFes, and I’m sure you’ll take care of me at home too—Yuni-san told me.”
“I caught a cold last time. She said I should thank you for taking care of me.”
I blinked and turned to look towards him.
Mizuto’s sidelong face was once again covered by the expanding darkness of the night.
“Wasn’t that…more than a month ago?”
“How reluctant were you to thank me…”
One word. Six letters.
…I didn’t know how much resolve it took him to say that much.
“Were you depressed that you made me worry during the CulFes meeting?”
“Either way, for now…I think I spent far too long on deciding to say this…I thought.”
On the other hand,
He missed the chance to say this for more than a month, but he managed it at least.
He made up his mind and came to say it.
For that alone—yeah. Wasn’t that something worth celebrating?
“I should thank you too. You helped me a lot during the CulFes preparation…and also when I caught a cold during the first semester. We’re even, right?”
“Yeah…so…from here on out, I don’t think I missed anything.”
At that moment…I realized something.
I’ve seen a lot of Mizuto’s sidelong face, so I noticed.
His lips were tense, just a little—that Mizuto was being nervous.
“Can I be selfish about one thing …?”
The tips of his pinkie wrapped over mine slightly.
“Sure… what is it?”
Mizuto gulped and licked his parched lips.
He turned his head slightly…and eked out this voice.
“… After this, instead of going to the after party, please come home with me.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
I didn’t know why exactly.
But I thought this was something to be very happy about.
In fact, I wanted to cheer so loudly, I thought it was a big deal.
But, yes…as an adult, I should know better.
The creases on my lips were replaced by a relaxed smile.
“Looks like I don’t have a choice now. Just this once, okay?”
Then, Mizuto took a small breath.
His terse lips relaxed in relief.
Then, looking back at me for the first time, he said again.
This day wasn’t just a day for the school’s culture festival.
I thought that it was also another very, very special anniversary, one that was difficult to name.
The lights of a passing car cast a shadow over us both.
The familiar route to school felt like a different entity at night…everything looked so new to me for some reason, probably because of this, or something else? It’s a very common phenomenon.
“It was hard work, but it was fun.”
Yume muttered like she had let out a sigh after a full meal.
“We all worked together…I haven’t joined a club, somehow, but I wonder if that’s what club activities are like.”
“Who knows? I’m just tired.”
“Good work. From now on, you can enjoy being alone as much as you want, okay?”
I looked at Yume’s face from the side as she giggled and teased me.
The hair hanging down from her temples cast a shadow on her cheeks. Even though she had been working all day, there was no hint of fatigue on her face.
For some time, I had thought that I was supposed to peek at her sidelong face from afar.
I had built a non-existent wall between me and that sidelong face from afar.
At this moment—I knew that if I reached out my hand to her, I could touch her.
Surprised by the suddenness of the situation, Yume looked down at her left hand.
My right hand grabbed her left hand.
“…It’s already dark. I thought you might get lost.”
“That’s for when you’re in a crowd, isn’t it!?”
She said that, but Yume didn’t try to wave her hand away.
It’s just a small, insignificant matter…yet I felt so relieved that I wanted to shout.
I was sick and tired of this person called me. I never thought I was such a weak person.
But—at this moment, I’m not afraid anymore.
I’m ready to fight against myself.
We walked for a while, still holding hands, and Yume said, giving me a peek.
“Can I discuss something with you?”
“Well…Kurenai-senpai asked me for a favor.”
I listened to Yume’s words, feeling the determination in her voice, even though it sounded like nothing.
Yume looked up at the familiar night sky and told me a definitive fact that proved our ‘difference’.
“—She asked if I could join the student council.”
Surprisingly, I agreed.
The term for the current student council will end after this culture festival. I heard that Vice President Kurenai-Senpai’s role as the chairman of the culture festival was a kind of training for the next president.
If that is the case…it’s no wonder that she was evaluating potential new student council members from the CulFes committee.
Yume too would suit those glasses well.
“…What do you think?”
The answer was already written in Yume’s eyes as she looked at me.
In that case, I was just going to nudge her from behind.
“You want to try it out, don’t you?”
Yume paused for a moment.
“Then just do it. There’s no need to hesitate.”
Yume gently moved her gaze forward again.
“By the way…have you been invited too?”
“No, I haven’t. It’s not for me.”
After all, there’s already that Kurenai-senpai…she’s just hiding it well, but she definitely had the same personality as Isana and I’m sure she wanted her successor to be different from her.
The sigh in her voice made me a little happier.
I thought that she might have had a similar problem to mine…I might be mistaken, but that was fine.
So, I held her hand and said,
“Are you worried about me not being here?”
I teased her with a smile.
Just as she’s been doing since the festival.
Yume glanced at me and pursed her lips in a sultry pout.
“…I’m not a kid. It’s true that I didn’t know what I was doing at CulFes because it was all new to me, but I’m fine now.”
“Hmm, I hope you’re right.”
“I’m fine though!”
Yep, she’s fine.
Because I knew that if I reached out to her,
She too could reach out to me.
Even though we’re different people, with different ways of thinking, different ways of living, different ways of perceiving things, and even if our lives go in completely different directions.
I’m not letting go of this hand that I’m holding.
I don’t want to.