I feel two other sets of eyes slowly turn their gazes towards me, though Ayame is off by about an inch since I haven’t made much noise beyond eating in the last few minutes. I can feel the scarlet rising in my cheeks as their attention is all turned to me, waiting expectantly for a response.
I swallow, taking the time to think before finally responding. “I mean, I’m not too interesting is all. I like music and science, but wouldn’t exactly say I have a passion for either. I used to play soccer with my friends, but that’s not exactly an option anymore.” I say the last bit with a bit of bitterness, though I continue before any of the three have a chance to pry further into it.
“I guess I’m a bit of a bookworm, though?” Saki’s eyes seem to light up at that. “I’d always enjoyed reading, but it was really all I had to do for a while before I came here.” Again, that hollowness creeps into my voice. I drag my tone up as I keep talking, though, not wanting them to start to worry about me again. “Like I said though, not super interesting. I’m just a pretty average guy, honestly.”
you he was a dork like you,” Miki spouts at Saki, settling into her seat with one arm over the back of her chair.
“A dork that might be right at home in the literature club,” Saki counters, flashing a smirk at Miki before turning back to me. “Suzu and I are both in it, and maybe some other familiar faces you'll recognize.”
She pauses, looking a bit sheepish before she finishes her thoughts.
“And we could still use some help finishing up our stall for the festival.”
Ah. So there’s the meat of it. Maybe she was just bringing it up to fish for help? Still, though...I can’t say I’m entirely against the idea. The festival is this coming weekend, but still three days away, and I’ve really got nothing better to do with my time between then and now than have my nose pressed into a book; whether that be for studying or otherwise.
[>That sounds nice, actually.]
Why not? I can think of a million worse ways to spend my time than reading, especially if that involves discussing a bit further into the stories that I’m reading anyways.
“Sure,” I reply, almost instantly greeted with that infectious smile of hers. “Can’t be that bad, and talking over sections of a book is a really good way to understand anything you didn’t get yourself.”
“Exactly!” Saki claps as Miki groans, rubbing her hand down her face.
“Man, I was really
hoping to have a cheerleader at my track meets,” Miki says, voice oozing sarcasm. “Now you’ve gone and stolen him, Saki! I had a uniform in mind and everything! Little frilly skirt and thigh-highs!”
Ayame gives a snort and chuckles as my face turns the same color as her hair. Saki at least has the decency to hide her lips behind her hand as she giggles. I can only see the sultry glare Miki gives me for a moment before I give her an angry one back, which earns me another knock to the shoulder.
“Come on, relax Hisao! You know I just like to poke fun at you!”
“How could I possibly forget?” I grumble into my rice, thankfully saved from further embarrassment as Saki speaks up, gently prodding me in the knee with her cane to get my attention back.
“Seriously though, if you want a spot on the Literature Club, I’m sure we could squeeze you in. Some of us are meeting up after classes today to put the finishing touches together on the stall. I can show you there!”
Again, that happy, passionate smile of hers. There’s just a...purity to it, something so truly delightful glinted in her eyes. I can’t stop my lips from mirroring hers. The idea of spending some more time with her is a welcome one, and it will be good to feel like I’m contributing to something, as well.
“Sounds great,” I say, and for once I believe it. Since my accident, I’ve had very little to really look forward to. Now, as small of something as it might be, it’s at least something. Maybe the upcoming festival won’t end up being as bad as I had thought it would be.
“Hicchan, this is absolutely unacceptable!” Misha wails, an annoyed pout plastered onto her face. Shizune, on the other hand, looks positively furious. Her signs are sharp and accentuated, her hands slicing through the air like knives.
It’s just the three of us left in the classroom, after our final class of the day had ended. Shizune and Misha, as per usual whenever they wish to accost me, have cornered me against the window of the room.
“You know how hard we were trying to recruit you into the Student Council, Hicchan! After all that your extremely-dedicated Student Council president and Class Representative has done to help acclimate you to our school environment, you spurn us to wax phi-lo-soph-i-cal about Charles Dickens and Jules Verne?!”
I can see Misha’s anguish fading to confusion as Shizune signs rapidly at me, the pink-haired girl barely able to keep up with the former’s movements in time to translate.
“I got an offer that felt a little less like coercion or blackmail than what I'm used to,” I respond simply, giving Shizune a shrug. This only serves to infuriate her even further, though it’s an interesting process to watch; instead of signing even more angrily, she pauses and glares at me, breathing silently through her nose for a few moments.
“Listen,” I start, rising from my seat and raising my hands placatively. “I appreciate all that you and Misha have done. You could be a bit pushy and stubborn about how you were doing things, but I know you were just trying to help. Thank you. However, the Student Council just isn’t something I’m interested in. It’s not for me.”
As Misha translates to her, Shizune takes a few moments to process my words. She squints at me as she does, studying me with her oh-so-familiar analytical gaze. Her mouth is still pursed in frustration, but I watch her slowly relax, shifting from anger to annoyance. After a few moments, she finally finds the words to respond.
“Well, Hicchan, as long as we know that you’re getting yourself involved with some form of school association and applying yourself to help prepare for the festival, I suppose we can’t be very upset with you overall. But! Don’t think that lets you off the hook, Hicchan~!”
Sometimes, I’m so thankful for the filter of Misha over Shizune’s words. I’m sure it would sound much more threatening in her own voice.
I can see Shizune winding up for another round of tongue lashing, but it’s then that a thump, thump, thump from the door interrupts the three of us from our argument. I turn to find Saki smiling in the doorway, her cane withdrawing from the door and coming back to rest at her side.
“Hi there!” She greets us, now having gotten our attention. “Sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” She looks across Shizune and Misha before coming to rest on me. Something in her eyes tells me she heard much more of the conversation than just the end. It’s not like Misha is exactly quiet in her verbal translation.
“Not at all!” I quickly reply, scooping up my bag and starting towards the door. Frantically waving my hand in front of me so that Misha and Shizune can’t see, I urge Saki to start walking before I’ve even gotten out of the room. I turn back to face the two girls, almost looking a bit stunned as I leave them behind.
“I’ll see you guys later!” I call out, before disappearing out of sight. I catch up with Saki a short distance from the door, and she smiles coyly up at me.
“Find yourself in hot water for siding with the Literature Club?” She asks, pretending with all her might that she doesn’t already know the answer.
“Something like that,” I sigh, running a hand through my hair. I haven’t seen Shizune truly angry since her argument with Lilly, but she looked damn close wen Miki let slip about making good on my promise.
“Thanks, by the way. I don’t know how much longer she would have dragged that on if you hadn’t shown up.”
She giggles, her hand finding the railing of the stairwell as we make our descent. “Don’t sweat it. Shizune can be like that, as I’m sure you’re aware by now. She means well...usually, but sometimes I think she just likes to push people’s buttons to see what they’ll do.”
“Like Miki?” I reply, a tired frown tugging at my lips. “I swear, it’s like she just loves to watch me squirm.”
“Why do you think she gets along with the guys, Hisao?” Saki retorts, though she’s still smiling playfully. “But she’s only kidding. If she was really into you, she’d be way
more bashful. It’s actually kinda cute.”
“I’m not her type I guess. Told me I was ‘too scrawny for her taste’,” I say, raising my hands to give air quotes.
“She did not!” She exclaims, turning to me in shock.
“Cross my heart.” I give the motion as I speak.
“Well, at least she’s blunt about it. I know plenty of girls that would love to let a guy think there was something when there wasn’t.”
I give a derisive snort at her reply. “You’re telling me.”
Saki makes a turn towards the Library. I get there before her, pulling the door open and standing aside. Saki smiles as she approaches, flashing a wink as she passes me.
“My my, what a gentleman.”
I’m thankful that’s she’s already past me as my face heats again. I’m starting to have second thoughts about my choice of friends, and whether or not surrounding myself with cute girls is advisable for my health.
The library is uncharacteristically alive with movement and noise today, a large section of the space not occupied by bookshelves occupied by a about a small handful of people, working to finish the final aesthetics on the club’s stall. From the menu and the decor, it’s a yakitori booth. Just the thought of freshly-grilled meat and vegetables makes my mouth water slightly.
Oh, this was definitely a good idea.
As we approach, I can pick out a few familiar faces. Suzu is gesturing animatedly at a man in a beret, turned away from me; still, he’s unmistakable as anyone but Takeshi Maeda even without seeing his face. Naomi is there as well, busily ignoring Suzu and Takeshi while rolling sticky decals onto the stall. Yuuko is there as well, apparently filling the role of faculty sponsor.
Along with them is a face I don’t recognize: a strikingly pale girl with a long, almost-silver braid over one shoulder, who catches my eyes with her bored, crimson gaze.
It’s almost like she stares into my soul, the way she looks at me; unmoving, with no visible reaction at having made eye contact with me. Her gaze is cold and analytical, as if drinking in my essence without a word. I feel as though she’s seen something in me that I have not told her. The rest of the group doesn’t seem to have noticed us. They do, however, when Saki uses her cane to rap twice on a bookshelf as we approach.
“Alas, your savior has arrived! I come bearing gifts!” Saki announces our presence as we approach the small group, and the other four sets of heads turn towards us. I see varying levels of recognition across their faces. Well, at least there’s no disgust or annoyance. That’s a good sign.
“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” Takeshi retorts, giving a wry grin at Saki before turning his attention to me. “‘Sup Nakai.” A simple greeting before he turns his attention back to the stall.
“Hisao?” Yuuko asks, confused. “What are you doing here? Do you need something? Oh, no, oh no, I’m so sorry!”
Before Yuuko can really get herself going, Saki interrupts her.
“Yuuko, it’s okay,” Her voice is soft and placative, practiced even; knowing how worrisome Yuuko is, I imagine this happens with some frequency.
“I invited Hisao to join the club, and he said he was more than happy to help us finish the preparations for the festival.”
I nod in assent, and Yuuko visibly relaxes a few degrees, though I can tell she’s still a bit on edge.
“That sounds great! Thank you, Hisao. We only have so many people, and I can’t always be around to supervise things between the Library and working at the Shanghai and studying for cla-”
“Yuuko,” This time I cut her off. “Don’t worry about it, really. We’ve still got a few days, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”
This seems to finally set her at ease, as she breathes a held-in sigh of relief. “Alright. Alright, yes, you’re right.” She smiles at me thankfully before continuing, “We should have things handled here for now, though. Would you and Saki mind heading down to the cafeteria to do an inventory of the food we have? It should all be labeled specifically for the club.” She grabs a clipboard and a set of keys and hands them towards us, which I take.
“Just put down how many boxes of each we have, so we know how to portion it out.”
“Can do!” Saki quips, looping her arm in mine. “You can count on us!”
She turns, and I’m tugged along as she goes. I can feel my heart rate increasing at the contact, but she breaks away after a few steps. As comfortable as I am with Saki now, physical contact is just not something I’ve ever really gotten used to.
“I can’t say I’m surprised how few people were there,” Saki sighs as she heads out through the door. “I guess people are more focused on their class’ stalls instead. We finished ours last Sunday, so I’ve thankfully been able to spearhead things here recently.”
“There’s more?” I quirk an eyebrow at her as we walk, closing on the cafeteria.
“What, you thought the entire club was only six people?” She sounds incredulous, punctuated by the sharp clack, clack, clack of her cane against the tile floors.
“No, we have about a dozen or so. Mostly second and first years, so probably no one you would know. Ikezawa and Satou have actually popped in a few times, but Ikezawa tends to get a bit skittish after a while and they both leave.”
Sounds about right. Seems like Lilly’s way of trying to get Hanako to branch out and tame her shyness. It makes me feel sorry for Hanako; that the only way she gets out into the world is at the call of her friend.
Am I not the same, though? When I came here, I just trudged around, drifting through my days. I didn’t make an effort to do anything or really get to know people on my own: other people pulled me into their lives and given me a direction.
It’s incredibly comforting to have real friends again. People that want
to have me around, rather than visiting me out of obligation or pity. Even still, I feel as though there’s a disconnect between myself and the rest of the student body here. I’m still not sure how to act, or talk, around people. Not sure where to look, what terms to use or avoid; awash in a sea of uncertainty as I struggle to find my bearings.
Saki, Miki, and even the Student Council has been there to act as lighthouses; lights in the ocean to guide me home. I’m thankful for it, honestly. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to reach some semblance of normalcy without the outreach that I’ve been given by the people I now consider my friends.
A jab in the stomach breaks me from the clouds, and I find myself standing just inside the cafeteria. It’s incredible how I can space out like that and continue walking unabated; a secret talent that I’m now thankful for.
“Are you still with me, Hisao?” Saki asks me playfully, making her way towards a door in the back of the cafeteria. “Come on. We just have to go back to the stock room and take inventory.”
I smile sheepishly and follow after her, unlocking the door and allowing her to continue leading the way to the back rooms. It’s interesting, seeing the areas where most students wouldn’t ever go. The air is colder back here, and only gets colder as we approach a chill room, and are greeted by a rather sizable stack of boxes, all stamped with ‘LIT’. The air isn’t freezing, but not entirely comfortable; we shouldn’t have to worry about the short time we’ll be in here.
Looking over the clipboard, I frown. There’s...a pretty decent sized list of different items here, ranging from fruit to spices to meat and vegetables.
“Uh...why don’t we divide and conquer? This list is pretty extensive. I’ll move separate them into piles, you count them up?”
Saki nods her assent, and after passing over the clipboard, we set to work. It’s not incredibly time-consuming work, but monotonous, especially when the boxes vary heavily in size.
“So…” Saki starts, using her cane to tap the tops of a series of boxes as she counts. “What had you so lost in thought?” She looks up at me now, that familiar playful glint in her eyes. “Am I just too gorgeous for you to handle, pretty boy
I’m suddenly no longer aware how cold the room is as I make a point to not meet her eyes, imagining her expression roughly mirroring Miki’s at most times.
“No! I mean, not saying you aren’t-” I cut myself off as she starts giggling, obviously enjoying seeing how flustered she has me. I swear, I’m going to get both of them back one day for all the torture they’ve been putting me through the last few days.
“Oh, just relax, Hisao. We wouldn’t poke fun at you if you weren’t so cute when you’re sputtering and trying to talk over yourself.”
Well, now the blush only intensifies, though at least it consolidates itself to my cheeks and ears.
“I was just thinking,” I continue, changing the topic. “About how thankful I am for you and Miki, even Shizune and Misha.”
This, however, is obviously not what Saki was expecting to hear. She lowers the clipboard a bit, her playful smile gone and replaced with a mix of sincerity and expectation, obviously assuming I have more to say.
“You guys have done a lot for me, and I haven’t even been here a full two weeks. You knew next to nothing about me beyond whatever gossip Miki had told you, and you still invited me into your little group of friends.” I look up from my own stack of boxes as I pause. “You did a lot to make me feel like I belong here, and it probably would have taken weeks being here before I settled in without you guys.”
Saki’s lips curl up into a bright, beaming smile at my words, a dusting of pink across her face a sign of the slight amount of embarrassment thrown into the mix. I can’t help but return the expression, so infectious in it’s warmth it can’t be stopped.
“You’re very welcome, Hisao. To be honest, I’ve seen a lot of kids like you walk into Yamaku: depressed, directionless...lost, really. They don’t know how to deal with the jarring change their lives have taken recently.” She must notice the look of shock on my face, as she just gives a giggle in response.
“What, you thought it wasn’t obvious that something happened to you? You transferred in in the middle of third year, Hisao. That means you either didn’t know about your condition until now, or it wasn’t bad enough for you to need to come here.”
My hand instinctively comes up to rub my chest, reminded of that day in the snow that had landed me here. Saki picks up on my shift in expression, as she continues.
“But! What I noticed about all those other kids is that they just needed someone to show them that it was okay, that they weren’t just some broken thing shuttled off to the Isle of Misfit Toys to be forgotten.” I can hear her walk towards me, but I don’t look up until I feel her hand on my shoulder, gazing down at my with her soft smile and compassionate eyes.
“They just needed a friend.”
My vision blurs slightly as I can feel my eyes water a bit, before I sniffle and look away, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. Damn that girl and her smile.
“Aww, see!” She pats me on the shoulder, the intimate moment passed as she moves back to the clipboard. “I told you you were cute when you were flustered.”
I’m not sure who’s going to kill me first; Miki, or Saki?