He looked out at the sea. He from two years prior sat on the stairs down to the sand, gazing vaguely out into the waves.
It was a dream of Shichirigahama beach he had seen over and over. So even in his sleep, Sakuta was sure that this was a dream.
He knew how things would progress from here, Shouko should get there soon.
"You seem tired again today, Sakutkun," said Shouko, skipping to his side and sitting next to him.
"And you're still a touch annoying," he answered.
"Is coming to the sea each day not soothing your aching heart?"
"Knowing how far it is to the horizon is the problem."
Even though the horizon seemed so distant, it was actually only a mere four kilometres. It probably taught some lesson about how things that seemed so far away were actually surprisingly close.
"Oh my, I can feel the responsibility. How can we get you back to being happy? I'll do what I can to help," she suggested, looking into Sakuta's face from the side. As she did, her flowing swayed to the side as she tilted her head adorably.
"I think I'll be happy again if I can touch your breasts," Sakuta returned negligently.
"Will that really make you happy again?" She asked with a doubtful look.
"But, I'm… not exactly big?" She questioned with upturned eyes.
Sakuta didn't reply and just kept looking at her, her cheeks steadily growing redder.
"…J-just a little," she finally allowed.
"I was just joking, don't take it so seriously please," Sakuta retracted, seeing as it seemed like she actually would let him at this rate.
"I know that much."
"Though if it would actually make you feel better, I have an idea."
Shouko smiled like an older sister might.
"Don't be so confident with that size would you."
"You've done it now!" She exclaimed, getting fired up, circling behind him. With a short yell, she jumped at his back, putting her arms around him over his shoulder. Of course, this meant that Shouko's chest pressed into his back. Thanks to that, Sakuta's entire concentration was focused there.
"Shouko-san," he said.
"What could you want?"
"You have more than I thought."
"That's right, that's right," she answered into his ear with a satisfied voice.
"Well, it's still only more than I thought."
"Your heart's pounding away and you're such a stick in the mud."
"Yours is too," he pointed out, but even with that, she didn't move away from him for a while. They just looked out at the sea, talking in drips and drabs as they remained in their positions. Their conversation wandered, and Sakuta felt himself relax with the heat from Shouko's body. Because of that, he didn't know what had prompted the topic, but just thought that the conversation had naturally ended up this way as Shouko said:
"You feel guilty for not being able to help your sister, don't you?"
"…Is that so bad?" He asked in turn.
"It's not bad, just if you're not happy, I think it will be tough on your sister. She'll think it's her fault that your smile died and be sad because of that."
"It's not Kaede's fault she was bullied."
Sakuta had no answer for her.
"The feeling of an apology is important you know?" She continued. "It's important, but if a person has those feelings directed at them constantly, they'll be crushed under the weight of the apology."
"What should I do then?"
"What words do you like to hear?"
Again, he had no answer.
"Do you like to hear 'sorry'?"
"I don't like to either. 'Thank you', 'you fought hard', and 'I love you' are the words I like to hear, my three great lovable phrases."
Shouko slightly tightened the grip she had on him from behind, embracing him closely. It made it a little hard to breathe, but it was pleasant and warm.
"You fought hard, Sakutkun."
Sakuta's heart thudded at her words into his ear.
"You fought so hard for your sister."
A burning blossomed behind his eyes at her continuation and by the time he realised what was coming, it was too late. In the blink of an eye, tears welled forth from Sakuta's eyes.
He hadn't been able to rely on anyone, hadn't been able to ask anyone for help, and had been able to do nothing but watch as his sister's body was covered in wounds by Adolescence Syndrome. No matter how much he had wanted to do something, he couldn't, no one even believed in the mysterious phenomenon that was assailing her.
Sakuta had explained what was happening, but no one would listen. His parents hadn't accepted reality and the school teachers began avoiding responsibility, none of his friends would approach. The harder he tried, the more the surrounding people distanced themselves from Kaede and him. They were just seen as people who couldn't read the atmosphere. It was painful, tiring, unavoidable, and just frustrating.
"You fought plenty hard enough."
Those words broke right through the dam of his feelings, and he couldn't stop his tears from flowing. He had thought that no one would understand, but here was someone that did. Someone that understood… It was a purely happy feeling, it itself becoming the feeling that saved him.
He tried to let the waves of his emotions turn his head around, but he couldn't, instead, he suddenly found his cheeks both held tightly, stopping him from moving his head…
Sakuta awoke, remembering the pressure on his face.
His right cheek was hot, his left was too. They were both stinging like he'd been slapped.
As he opened his eyes to that pain, and the first thing he saw was Mai's upside-down face.
Her expression of displeasure ruined the look of the apron she actually had worn. She was upside-down because she was squatting just above Sakuta's head as he lay on his back, her hands holding his head between them.
"I'm sorry," he said, starting with an apology as his mouth was crushed up into a circle.
"Umm…" He had a single idea, that he had called a name he shouldn't have, while sleep-talking.
"I'm sure you can infer the reason?" He suggested hesitantly.
"I was just angry at seeing you sleeping so peacefully when we were under the same roof," she lied with pursed lips as she looked away.
"Because you couldn't really sleep in your boyfriend's house?"
"Staying over at my younger boyfriend's house doesn't really matter," she said, regaining her normal disposition. However, as she finished the sentence, she let out a small yawn. Even though she had slept so soundly when they were in the same bed in Ogaki… Perhaps she took more notice of him as a man now, or possibly she was just still tired from the filming in Kyoto… Sakuta decided to be optimistic and stick with the former.
"Don't go thinking cheeky things when you're just you."
"Oh, what gave me away?"
"It's written all over your face."
"What, that I think my innocent Mai-san is just too cute?"
"You really are cheeky," she said, smacking him loudly on the forehead. "I made breakfast, so go wash your face."
Sakuta raised his head off the floor to see French toast and scrambled egg laid out on the table.
"I'm sorry for using your ingredients without asking though."
"Please think of this as your own house and do what you want," he said.
"Hup!" Sakuta let out, looking like he was about to get up but actually just lifting his head onto Mai's thighs into something that would usually be called a lap pillow. However, it wasn't perfect, Mai was kneeling so Sakuta was oddly bent with his torso off the ground.
"Mai-san, my neck hurts."
"Don't do something and then complain about it," she scolded. But even so, she made no attempt to move his head and the time passed blissfully.
"Huh!?" They heard out of nowhere from a little distance away, as Kaede exited her room.
"Ah, morning Kae- Ah!"
In the middle of his greeting, Mai suddenly stood, so Sakuta's head lost its support and smacked into the living room floor.
He couldn't even cry out in surprise, and just writhed on the floor, holding the back of his head.
"Morning, Kaede-chan," said Mai with an unruffled expression, ignoring her boyfriend's awful fate. Sakuta decided he probably had accidentally called out Shouko's name in his sleep. Mai hadn't explicitly said so, but that was her pride as his girlfriend, she didn't want to admit to being bothered by Shouko.
"G-good morning. I didn't see anything!" She cried as Sakuta finally got up to see her fidgeting with both hands covering his eyes, "I still can't see anything, everything is dark!"
"Well yeah, it will be if you cover your face." Sakuta retorted.
"I can't see tomorrow either!"
"That's just life."
"It's like a drama without a plot, isn't it?"
"Mornings sure are lively in your house, Azusagawa," said Rio as she left the bathroom, a strangely troubled expression behind her glasses. He was sure it was because she didn't know how to fit in with the atmosphere here.
The four of them then surrounded the breakfast that Mai had prepared.
They began eating with a, "Let's eat."
It was the first time the dining table had been filled like this since Sakuta and Kaede had started living here.
It took a little while for them to all seat themselves, but Kaede and Sakuta sat next to each other and started ferrying the soft French toast to their mouths. It was strangely too perfect, so it was a little hard to eat.
"Onii-chan, this is tasty, it's so fluffy!" Kaede exclaimed.
"The eggs are good too," Sakuta told her.
"They're melting in my mouth."
"Let's have Mai-san cook for us every day from now one."
"Let's!" Kaede nodded with a smile.
"Don't exploit Kaede-chan," Mai warned him, stepping on his foot under the table.
"What's wrong, Onii-chan?"
"My love's being tested," he said as Mai ground her foot on his.
Kaede tilted her head in question, and Rio stopped eating for some reason as well.
"Futabsan, do you not like it?"
"Ah, that's not it," said Rio at Mai's question, moving some of the French toast to her mouth, "It's just been a while since I've eaten breakfast with someone."
Now that she mentioned it, Sakuta realised she often ate toast in the lab and drank the physics teacher's personal jar of instant coffee… Perhaps she didn't eat breakfast with her family.
Just as he opened his mouth to ask, a quiet vibration broke through the air. It was a faint sound that you had to listen closely for, but Sakuta could immediately tell that it was a mobile ringing, as Kaede began to shake next to him.
"Ah, sorry, that's me," said Mai, bringing the bunny-covered phone out of the apron pocket, "Give me a minute, it's my manager."
She excused herself from the table and went out onto the balcony, putting the phone to her ear.
"Hello?" She answered with an adult tone.
Sakuta wasn't sure whether it was because the other person was speaking loudly or because the phone's volume was high, but the voice reached him as well.
"What's wrong?" Asked Mai.
"I'm sorry to bother you so early, are you free to talk?"
"Good work on the filming… Are you out by any chance?" They asked, probably hearing the sounds picked up by the mic. Well, strictly speaking, she was on the balcony.
"I'm at my boyfriend's house," Mai replied easily, as if her manager should already know she was dating.
Or so Sakuta thought.
"Ahh, your boyfriend's… what!?" Came the managers yell of surprise. Apparently, this was the first they'd heard. "T-that was a b-boy!? You said boyfriend?"
"I did," she replied unconcernedly to her flustered manager.
"D-don't move from there, please! I'll talk to the boss! I'll visit your home later!"
Apparently having hung up, Mai came back inside, even saying, "Now we're fine," as she removed the phone's battery.
"I'm sorry, Kaede-chan," she apologised gravely to Kaede as she sat back down.
"I-it's okay! I just shiver when I hear that sound."
"Are you okay, Mai-san?" Sakuta asked.
"Thanks to you, I'm going to get a lecture from the agency's boss later."
Sakuta remained silent.
"That was a joke," she smiled like nothing had happened, moving some of the French toast to her mouth. "This is pretty good," she praised herself. It actually was very tasty, and Sakuta wasn't joking when he said he wanted her to make it every day.
"I can't tell whether your showbiz jokes are jokes or not, so please don't."
"Having a boyfriend is fine."
"What about your manager then? They seemed pretty panicked?"
"We just got an advertisement contract, so she's sensitive to anything that could become a scandal. Well, we'll probably just be told not to go out together for a while."
"That's not okay at all, is it?"
That just sounded like it would develop into telling them to break up.
"Ah, and as far as her being panicked, she always is."
"That's not okay either, is it?"
He didn't know much about it, but a manager should be dealing with talent work and organising schedules. If they had a disposition like earlier, that would be a worry. And in the end, she had hung up even though she hadn't brought up what she phoned for… And now Mai had removed the phone's battery out of consideration for Kaede, so if she realised that she hadn't told Mai what she was supposed to, she'd probably panic again.
Well, Sakuta worrying about it wouldn't help, so he just decided to keep eating the delicious breakfast.
When the clock struck ten, Shouko visited as always. She was wearing a wide-brimmed hat today, looking like the daughter of some well-off family out for a summer walk.
"Mother said that I should wear it because the sun's strong," she excused as she noticed Sakuta's gaze. "Um, do you have guests over?" She asked, spotting the unfamiliar shoes in the hall.
"A few things happened, you're fine to come in though."
Shouko shed her shoes and moved through to the living room to see Mai and Rio there as well as Kaede.
"You have a lot of female acquaintances, Sakutsan," she said.
Sakuta just looked at her.
"Ah, I didn't mean anything bad by that," she said, waving her hand in front of her chest to try and dispel the misunderstanding.
"I didn't," she repeated, even though Sakuta had said nothing.
"Do you think I'm some player?"
"No, I just think you're surprisingly like one of the maharajas maybe," she said carefully. Before the misunderstandings could develop further, Sakuta introduced her to Rio, her and Mai having met when they picked up the cat.
"This is Futaba Rio, she's in my year at school."
"I'm Makinohara Shouko," Shouko said with a neat bow, prompting a slightly tense expression from Rio. After that, she glanced at Sakuta. He gave a slight nod. Yesterday he had talked with the other Rio, but hadn't mentioned Shouko to this Rio yet, so it was only natural that she was surprised.
He'd talked with 'Rio', so even though he'd meant to have already spoken to her, he'd completely forgotten.
While Shouko was playing with Hayate, Sakuta spoke to Rio about her.
"Adolescence Syndrome really does love you, doesn't it?" She said, not at all happily.
Later on, as promised, Sakuta and Shouko bathed Nasuno. Shouko held her up and took her to the bath. Hayate seemed to prance after them too, but was perhaps wary, as he didn't follow them into the bathroom.
Sakuta filled the basin with warm water, and at his signal, Shouko put Nasuno into it. She sat obediently in the basin, and they used a jug to pour water over the part of her back that was out of the water as she closed her eyes in pleasure.
They then added shampoo.
"Go slowly with the direction of her fur."
Shouko scrubbed Nasuno with her small hands, getting every nook and cranny and putting bubbles all over the cat's body.
Nasuno exited the basin with an answering mewl, padding out right in front of Shouko.
"Ah, crap," said Sakuta.
"Eh?" Questioned Shouko.
At nearly the same time, Nasuno shook the water off her body, spraying water everywhere.
"Kyaa!" Shouko screamed, falling back on the wet floor in surprise. Pointing the shower head at herself at the same time, "Kyaa, kyaaa!"
Shouko dropped the shower head in surprise at being soaked, the water making it write all over the floor, mercilessly soaking Shouko's entire body.
She let out a whine as Sakuta hurriedly turned the shower off.
It was too later though. Shouko was soaked from head to toe, her thin white dress clinging to her skin, showing not just her underwear, but her skin as well.
Nasuno passed by her with no concern, leaving into the corridor. She was still wet, so they couldn't just leave her.
"Kaede! Nasuno's on her way, dry her off!"
After he'd finished yelling to Kaede, Sakuta offered Shouko a hand up. She was actually surprisingly light. He led her by the hand to the changing room and started to towel off her head.
"It's okay, I'll do it myself."
"Fair enough," he answered, she wasn't a little child after all. "I'll get you a change of clothes, so strip out of them. You don't want to catch a cold.
Shouko put her hands to the buttons on her chest, but because of how wet they were, she didn't seem to be able to unfasten them.
"Give them here," Said Sakuta, holding his hand out. Shouko obediently turned the buttons over. They were certainly tough, but he managed to undo the first, and then the second.
The dress' front was open and the white camisole she was wearing underneath was visible. That too was soaked through and transparent.
Just as he was about to undo another to make it easier to remove, he felt someone behind him.
"Sakuta, what are you doing?" Asked Mai from where she was standing in front of the room.
"Taking Makinoharsan's clothes off."
"Don't just boldly admit it," she said, apparently angry.
"Eh? Huh? Do I look like some pervert taking advantage of an innocent girl?"
"Wait a minute, Mai-san, she's still a child, right?"
Shouko was too young for Sakuta to think of her as a member of the other sex.
"She's a girl," Mai continued, still displeased, apparently there was a difference in viewpoint between them. They definitely needed a clear delineation here.
"Makinoharsan," he said.
"Yes?" She answered, calmly even as the conversation suddenly swung back to her.
"Do you bathe with your father?"
"I did until my third year," she answered.
"What about now?"
"Not anymore," she answered plainly.
Now that she mentioned it, even though she was younger, Shouko was already in her first year of middle school, and not a small child, she was a girl, like Mai had said…
"Umm… Mai-san, please deal with the rest," he tried to misdirect her with a forced smile.
"When I'm done, we need to talk," she said, unfortunately not misdirected at all.
"I hope it's something fun."
"Um, I'm okay with it, so please don't be angry with Sakutsan," said Shouko, her pure gaze focused on Mai.
He was thankful for the help, but in this situation, it accomplished the exact opposite.
"Haven't you tamed her well," she said, her eyes unsmiling.
"I didn't do anything, she's always been like this."
"Just get out already," she said, ousting him from the room and closing the door firmly.
"Crap, she's seriously mad…"
"I can hear you, idiot."
"…I'm sorry, please forgive me."
After a reaming from Mai and eating his lunch, Sakuta changed into his school uniform and headed towards school as he had planned. About a ten-minute walk under the scorching sun saw him to the nearby Fujisawa Station. It was in the centre of the town with a population of about 400,000. General stores and volume retailers practically surrounded the station, and the station itself was a meeting point between three lines, the JR, Odakyu, and Enoden lines, so had a lot of commuters even today.
A leisurely ride south-east on the Kamakurbound Enoden took about fifteen minutes before he alighted at Shichirigahama station, a small station with just a single track going through it.
Sakuta exited through the ticket barriers and was greeted by the smell of the sea. He'd thought he'd get used to it with always catching the train, but the instant he stepped out of the carriage, he could feel the sea even now. If anything, his awareness had actually grown to the point where he could spot the subtle differences that came with the season and weather changing.
However, on this occasion, he couldn't help but be conscious of his legs as Mai had made him kneel for a long time, making them feel funny.
There were no other students on the short road in to school, He saw the odd local surfer carrying their boards which really brought the summer home. University students headed towards the sea, laughing as they went.
He passed through the gate, roughly a third open, into the school. He could hear the shouts of club activities from the sports ground, the baseballers rushing after their ball. Occasionally, the pleasant clang of a metal bat hitting the ball also sounded through the air.
With the summer tournament over, the third years had retired, so the team should be reorganising themselves into a new system. Only a few of the many players across the high schools in Kanagawa would have the opportunity to step out onto the field at Koshien Stadium. The Minegahara students this year had encountered the reigning champions in the second round and been soundly defeated. Precisely because the summit was so distant, it was rather dazzling to see those students working themselves to the bone for a chance to reach it.
Listening to their yells, Sakuta headed away from them towards the school building in search of some shade.
"Futaba, you here?" Sakuta called lightly as he opened the door to the physics lab.
There was no reply, and the room was empty. However, there was a half-drunk cup of coffee in the lab sink, so it seemed the 'fake' had indeed come to school.
Maybe she'd gone to the toiler he thought, sticking his head into the corridor and glancing at the girl's toilet down the hall. No one seemed to be coming out.
Her bag was under the desk, so she didn't appear to have gone home.
Sakuta wandered the lab, intending on waiting for Rio to return. The room was about as big as two normal classrooms, far too big to spend your time in alone. He could feel the traces of people having been here from the haphazardly placed chairs, and the distant yells from students going about their club activities made the silence in the room even more conspicuous.
Being here made it feel like he had been left alone within the school. Even though mere moments ago there were so many people, there weren't anymore… or so the atmosphere in the lab seemed to say.
That feeling grew into an uneasiness, a building pressure around his stomach, He wondered if Rio felt like this every day, or if it was just his imagination.
To try and change the mood, Sakuta opened a window, letting in a warm breeze along with the cheers from outside. Putting his head out of the window allowed the enthusiasm from the crowd around the gym to reach him. Many students in basketball uniforms were around the building, with some in a different colour, maybe from a different school.
"Oh yeah, Kunimi said he had a practice match," Sakuta said to himself, repeating what Yuuma had told him the day before during work, that they apparently had a match with a nearby high school.
In that case, Rio's location went without saying.
Going back to the entrance, Sakuta switched to his outdoor shoes and headed over to the gym, the noises of the ball bouncing, the players' yells and the squeal of their shoes on the floor becoming clearer as he approached.
The three equally-spaced doors were open to let the breeze in, and Sakuta saw Rio at the furthest one.
"So she is here…" he muttered, his voice slightly nervous.
He had met the 'fake' yesterday, and spoken to her properly, taking her advice. At the time he hadn't felt anything, but now knowing there were two Rios and laying eyes on the other one made a chill run down his spine.
He watched her steadily. She had her hair up in the same way as she had when they met at the bookstore the day before. She wasn't wearing her lab coat, and her legs, usually hidden by its long hem, were completely on display, letting her slightly plump thighs be seen. Her blouse seemed tight across her chest, and the vest on top of it pushed it up into a curve. Her collar was properly done up, and coupled with her serious looks, made the growth of her chest draw even more attention.
Some of the boys from the other school were stealing glances at her, and as he passed them, he heard:
"Huh, is she a third-year?"
"She's kinda hot, smart-hot."
"Go talk to her."
"You do it."
He could understand their feelings as their pointless conversation unfolded. Rio certainly did look more adult with her hair up like that, and she looked sexy too. On top of that, her gaze without her glasses hiding it seemed rather listless and made you want to go talk to her.
However, Rio only had eyes for one person, and was following them. Rio wasn't watching the match, she was watching Kunimi Yuuma, her eyes not following the ball at all.
"Kunimi doing well?" Asked Sakuta, drawing alongside her, speaking as if everything was normal.
She started in surprise.
"Huh, her boyfriend?" Came one of the voices from earlier.
"I don't think so," was the reply.
Rio glanced at Sakuta and immediately looked away. Looking at her face from the side, she looked rather uncomfortable, and like she wasn't enjoying herself.
"I just came to watch while doing club work," she said faintly.
"I didn't say anything though?"
"You'd have asked anyway."
"Well, yeah, seeing you embarrassed is a precious sight."
"There's still lots I want to do with Mai-san, so wait eighty years."
"You think you'll still be alive at ninety-five?"
"People like me have long lives, right?"
"That's not a line you're supposed to come out with yourself," said Rio with a sigh, her eyes following Yuuma.
Sakuta checked the score. The match was close, Minegahara had a slim lead of a mere three points. Basketball had three-pointers, so that could change in an instant. At that very moment, one of the yellow-shirted opponents took one of those shots.
The ball traced out an arc in the air… before bouncing off the rim. A tall, white-clad player scooped up the ball and flung it in a long pass to Yuuma, who was already near the other side's net.
The hurried footsteps of both teams running off filled the gym.
Yuuma received the pass and immediately dribbled it through the other half, feinting passing it between the yellow player's legs and leaving him behind, arriving in the now free space and going to jump to take a shot. Suddenly, a huge player leapt in front of him, he was nearly two metres tall. However, Yuuma's motion was another feint, and his feet were still firmly planted on the ground.
Now that the defence was fully committed, he re-aimed and shot for real this time.
The basketball drew out a lazy parabola through the air, spinning beautifully through the net. The girls that had come to watch the match cheered shrilly, they were probably first years. There were girls from the other school cheering too.
"The hell, this scene just pisses me off, I'm 'censed."
"You're too narrow-minded, Azusagawa."
"Aren't you going to squeal 'kyaa, Kunimiiiii' as well?"
She just glared at him.
"You'll surprise him and definitely get him."
"I am supporting him."
"On the inside?"
Her silence was confirmation enough.
"You're not appealing to him enough," said Sakuta as another cheer went up as the opponents scored. The reaction let him know that the match had been a back and forth like this, a close match. There were three minutes left in the match.
"Say, Futaba," Sakuta started.
"I'd rather you didn't interfere."
"What do you like about him?"
The ball was thrown right into the middle of the court.
"You're his friend and you don't even know that?"
"He's a good guy, nice enough that it pisses me off, and doesn't judge people based off preconceptions."
He could see things for himself, not based off rumours or hearsay from other people. Yuuma had said that it was how he was taught by his mother, but Sakuta didn't think that was something you could teach. The way of the world was that if you were with people who had bad reputations, your own reputation would suffer, so it wasn't like he couldn't understand Kamisato Saki's feelings when she told him to stay away from Yuuma. It wasn't pleasant to be told that, but…
"What makes you like him though? I'm a guy, so I don't get how someone like him charms girls."
Sakuta knew that Yuuma had a good-looking face, and was taller than him. He was good at basketball and handsome in general. He'd heard female university students saying that he looked oddly childish and cute when he laughed. However, he had a feeling that none of that was the reason for Rio's feelings towards him.
"And what will you do when you know?" She asked.
"Nothing really, I'm just curious. It's the kind of conversation high school students have, right?"
"That's the right of normal high school students."
"Are you trying to say you're special, Futaba?"
"I'm saying that I don't have a normal high school life," she said, unimpressed, her eyes still following Yuuma alone.
"Everyone has the right to love, it's not like a car, you don't need a licence."
Everyone was allowed to love. If anything, it was beyond being allowed or not. The heart moved as it willed, left or right. There just needed to be someone you enjoyed yourself with, that you worried about, that your worries felt like they'd crush your chest…
It was nothing special.
"I've thought this before as well, but you really are a romantic at heart."
"You came all the way here to chase after your first love, and it took you a whole year to forget her, then you're dating that celebrity, it's not normal."
"I'll start to blush if you compliment me like that."
"This should go without saying, but I'm not."
"What a shame."
"I'm not complimenting you, but I am a little jealous of your loyalty to your feelings. People normally pull back, honesty, straightforwardness and loyalty aren't popular nowadays."
Even as Rio said she was jealous, her demeanour remained unconcerned, and she didn't seem it at all.
"You don't care about fashions either."
"If I went at it straightforwardly, it would ruin what we have now."
Of course, Rio was talking about Yuuma.
"So? What made you fall for him in the end?" Asked Sakuta, forcefully returning the conversation back on track as he felt her start to skillfully change the topic.
Rio just glared at him before giving a blunt sigh, her eyes telling him to read the atmosphere.
"Huh, sighing at a love story."
"Hearing the words 'love story' from your mouth gives me chills."
"Then I'll be careful not to say it a second time," Sakuta allowed.
Somehow, he had the feeling that this was the first time in his life he'd said it.
"A chocolate cornet," Rio suddenly muttered.
"Want me to run and buy one?"
"No, Kunimi gave me one when I didn't have my lunch one day."
The school didn't have a wonderful cafeteria, so bringing packed lunches was the standard. If you didn't have one, then there was a small van that came and was used by an older woman to sell bread, a bakery open just outside the gate during lunch time.
There was also a convenience store near to the school, so if you decided to use it, you could. However, it was against the school rules to leave the grounds, so the number of people who did was limited.
So with the only rule-abiding way to get lunch being the bakery, it was naturally always packed, thronged by hungry students that descended like a plague of locusts, emptying the cases of bread.
Once they dispersed, the only things left were empty plastic cases, and a satisfied woman.
"It was in the first term of first year… it was the first time I'd gone to the bread van…"
The students surrounding the van could certainly be overpowering, and weaker hearted students probably couldn't find the courage to plunge in.
"And then Kunimi appeared in shining armour?"
"He appeared eating his spoils, a curry bread."
"The Curry Bread Prince, huh?"
"He spoke to me when I was overwhelmed… he smiled and said, 'You're a girl, Futaba, so I figured you'd want something sweet'."
Even not having witnessed it himself, Sakuta could picture the scene. Rio would have been standing a little way away from the crowd, wanting to buy food but not having the courage to join the throng. Then, just as she gave up and headed off sadly, Yuuma would have appeared, wearing his usual carefree smile…
He could understand how that was the impetus.
Sakuta nodded with a "Hmm," and awaited her continuation.
However, Rio just stood there and slowly flushed slightly red.
"And then?" He urged, once it became clear she wouldn't continue.
"That's it," said Rio as usual.
"I see, that was it."
"How much is a chocolate cornet?"
"Two hundred and thirty yen."
"You're cheap, huh?"
"If it was you then I wouldn't have fallen in love."
"So it's his looks in the end."
"Kunimi was the first one other than you to call me 'Futaba'."
Sakuta, Yuuma, and Rio had all been in the same class the previous year, class 1-1. Rio stood out because she always wore the lab coat, and didn't join any of the girls' groups. Of course, the boys didn't talk to her either. The sight of her just sitting alone in her chair gave a strange impression, like she was unconcerned by anyone. Their classmates often called her 'professor' or 'lab coat' behind her back.
"Would falling for me be that bad?"
"I'm not your type anyway," Rio said.
"Well, you're the type I'd rather have as a friend rather than a girlfriend," Sakuta answered.
Rio laughed at his unchanging personality as he spoke.
"In the end," she continued, "I think it was the timing. I was really down back then."
"Hm? Did something happen back then?"
"Nothing really, I just felt depressed, I'm sure that's never happened to you."
"You might not be aware of this, so I'll let you know, but I'm a human just like you."
"That's a shocking revelation," she returned.
"Well, whatever. So? You thought Kunimi was special because he was kind to you when you were down?"
"…I certainly do sound cheap when you put it like that," snorted Rio self-deprecatingly.
As he was searching for an answer, the buzzer to signal the end of the match sounded.
"Thank you!" Came the thunderous yell through the gym.
After the match, the sweaty players came out of the gym in groups, whipping their tops off and yelling about diving into the sea before rushing over to the water supply and starting to wash themselves off. They were all toned from their exercises. The other school was apparently a seaside school too, as it wasn't just the Minegahara students that were tanned.
The first year girls were whining, half in shyness, and half in happiness. The girls from this school were mostly frowning and saying that boys were the worst, with this being something that only they could do after a match.
All that aside, Sakuta wasn't interested in men's bodies, so stopped watching, it was just sordid.
Rio did likewise, looking away. However, it was for a different reason than Sakuta. That the yells from Yuuma and the others as they messed around with the water reached her ears was clear from her reaction as she flushed right down her neck.
"Just watch if you want to watch," Sakuta told her, as Yuuma shook the water off like a dog, before using a towel and drying himself then changing into a new T-shirt. "Ahh, he's dressed again."
Rio turned ever so slightly to face him, the cold promise of death in her eyes. He should probably stop teasing her, he decided, lest he ruin their friendship.
"So? What did you want?"
"You don't like school enough to come in during the holidays if there wasn't something you wanted."
"Well, I wouldn't mind the holidays continuing forever," if he could meet Mai every day that is.
"Your dreams are just like an elementary schooler's," Rio cut him down, the look in her eyes telling him to get back to the point.
"I'll put it bluntly then."
"Put what bluntly?"
"Futaba's at my house right now."
Rio's gaze suddenly wavered.
"I see, so that's why you were acting weirdly on the phone last night," Rio muttered to herself.
"What on Earth's happening?"
"Why don't you ask the other me?"
"You admit that there's more than one of you so easily."
Her tone was business-like, as if she was talking about somebody else. That was just like the Rio that Sakuta knew though. Her reaction to talking about Yuuma was just the same as well. Unfortunately, he couldn't see a single thing about her that wasn't Rio, how could he call her a fake?
"What's the other me's opinion?" She asked.
"That if it's possible, it's through quantum teleportation or something."
"The same as me then."
Now that she mentioned it, when they met in the bookstore, Rio had bought a book on quantum teleportation.
"In that case though," she continued, "there wouldn't be more than one of me at the same time, and we'd have to have the same memories."
The other Rio had said that as well.
"That's why the other you said that it was your consciousnesses themselves observing you, split in two for some reason."
He didn't know whether the explanation was correct, but he understood it.
"I see, and the reason they split?"
"She said she didn't have any idea."
"And you believed that obvious lie?"
"I don't suspect my friends of lying," he said.
"You do, you actually think I'm a fake, don't you?"
Rio stamped sharply on the ground.
"Honestly, I thought you might be at first."
"That sounds like you don't anymore."
"No matter how I look at you, I can only see Futaba. Anyway, if you have any idea why your consciousness split into two, tell me."
"Can't you just ask the other me? She should have an idea."
"Why do you think that?"
"Because I do," she answered.
In other words, she was trying to say that if the other was 'Futaba Rio', then she should know, and conversely, if she didn't then she was the fake.
"If it's the same whichever I ask, you can just tell me, right?"
Rio's gaze slipped past Sakuta for a moment, to where Yuuma should be.
"I'm going back to the club," she said, brooking no argument and walking off towards the building, nearly running in fact…
"You don't want to talk to Kunimi?"
With trying to talk about Adolescence Syndrome being pointless, Sakuta called after her the same way as he normally would."
All that she replied with was silence. She didn't stop and continued on into the building, finally going out of sight.
"That restraint is just like her too," said Sakuta, feeling the pain himself from watching.
"What's up with Futaba?" Came the question from behind him, asked by Yuuma who had a towel on his head and was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He had a blue-labelled sports drink in his hand, a two-litre bottle, already two thirds empty as he downed the last third all at once.
"Hahh, I'm alive again," he sighed.
"So you were dead until now?"
"Near enough… So, what's with Futaba?"
"Nothing really, Futaba's being as Futaba as always."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
It was just a worthless distraction, but Yuuma decided to let it slide. Obviously, he couldn't say about there being two Rios, Yuuma would think he was crazy. Actually, Yuuma would probably listen until he understood, but Rio probably didn't want him to know.
"She was just here, right?" Asked Yuuma.
"I saw her watching from here right from the start of the match."
"Focus more on the match itself."
"Of course I can see my friends around the court," he excused as he threw the now empty bottle into the rubbish bin. Sakuta thought hard at it, willing it to miss, but it went right in.
"You just thought 'miss', didn't you?" Yuuma asked.
"You can read minds?"
"It was all over your face," he replied, jabbing lightly at his head.
"Does Futaba often come?"
"Hmm, I don't know, I guess sometimes while she's here for club stuff?"
"I wonder which one she's actually here for," said Sakuta, looking meaningfully at Sakuta.
"You've been pretty forceful recently."
"I just won't let you play around with Futaba."
"That's putting it bluntly," Yuuma said as the girls' match began in the gym, "I'll be careful with it… What're you here for?" He asked as if it was the natural question.
"Should I not be?"
"You don't like school enough to come in during the holidays."
"Futaba already told me that."
"…Is there something up with Futaba?" Yuuma suddenly asked after a moment's thought.
"What do you mean, something?"
"There's nothing really going on with me, and you're here even though it's the holidays… so I thought there's got to be something up with her."
The logic was based on whether Sakuta was at school… It was a conclusion that he never would have come to without knowing the two of them well.
"Kunimi-senpai, the coach wants to go over the match," a first-year took advantage of the gap in their conversation.
"Got it, on my way," said Yuuma, moving as if to go inside, but stopping and looking back at Sakuta first. "Call me if anything happens?"
"I'd have called whether you asked me to or not, you'd better come flying even if it's the middle of the night."
"I can't fly myself, so I'll just make my bike fly instead," Yuuma answered with a smile, heading back inside.
Sakuta left the gym behind and headed straight for the visitor's entrance, about thirty metres away from the main entrance. There was an office just inside, that wasn't somewhere he went often, and wasn't a place the students went in general. They normally used the infirmary, two doors down.
He took off his shoes in the quiet visitor's entrance and changed into slippers. He didn't go towards the unlit office, stopping instead in front of a green payphone. Taking a single ten yen coin from his wallet and lifted the handset, just depositing that one coin.
He dialled his house phone, and it was soon picked up.
"Hello, this is Azusagawa."
He could immediately tell that the person who answered was Mai.
"Mai-san, please say that one more time."
"Hello, this is Azusagawa," she repeated, sounding more like she was answering a business call this time rather than the gentle voice from earlier and he could practically see her tired expression.
"Try more like a newlywed."
"You're awfully excited over a phone call," she said.
"Well, that's because it's a call with you."
"I won't act like a newlywed, even if you say that."
"You don't need to be embarrassed."
"How are things there?" Mai returned to the main conversation, completely ignoring Sakuta's needling.
He wanted to keep it going for a while longer, but ten yen had its limits, so he decided to answer honestly, after all, that was what he had called for.
He took out another ten yen.
"Futaba came to school," he told her.
"I see. She's been here for the whole time too."
"What's she been doing since I left?"
"Mainly watching Kaede study. She's teaching science now."
"Well, there's a bit of distance between them," she said, letting out a tiny laugh. Kaede was probably peaking out of her room and Rio was teaching her from the living room. Kaede was bigger than Rio, so it certainly did give a rather amusing impression. Kaede was 162 centimetres tall, and Rio was only about 155, so he could understand Mai's laughter.
"And what have you been doing?"
"I cleaned your room," she answered, purposefully adding some mischievousness to her tone.
"So, Mai-san, you opened my wardrobe and looked at my boxers."
"I disposed of all the illicit things within your room."
"You don't need the bunny suit anymore, right?"
"That's my second most precious thing!" He leaned in closer to the handset.
"What's the most precious then?"
"You, of course."
"I was being serious," he said.
"Then you don't need the second onwards."
"If you have me, that's enough, right?"
He had no answer.
"Am I wrong?" Came her sharp question.
"It's enough," he answered quietly, with nothing else to say.
"You don't need to be so upset about it. I put it all aside rather than throw it away."
"You're mean, Mai-san."
"Oh yeah, do you like idols?" Asked Mai, suddenly changing the topic. It was too sudden, so Sakuta didn't know what she was getting at.
"Eh? Why do you ask?"
"There was a manga magazine with an idol gravure on the cover, from about three months ago."
"Ah, I just forgot to throw it away, you can get rid of it."
"I see," Mai agreed shortly. Her reply sounded like she was thinking of something else though.
"Oh yes, my manager is coming in about ten minutes, is it alright if I let her in? Um… I should keep my eye on Futabsan after all, right?" She asked, speaking more quietly out of concern for Rio.
"If you say that greeting again."
"Hello, this is Azusagawa," she said softly, giving an aura of happiness to the words, just as a newlywed like Sakuta had imagined. "Sakuta, do you want to marry me?"
"Right now, I want to be your boyfriend," he answered.
"I didn't want you to just answer 'yes' right away, but that seems oddly like a refusal."
"Honestly, marriage doesn't really feel real to me yet."
"Hmm," she said, still not fully convinced it seemed, "Well, I agree with that, a happy family scene doesn't really have any reality to it."
Mai was almost speaking to herself, Sakuta thought because her parents had split up when she was young and she had lived with her mother for a long time, and now she had a poor relationship with her mother and lived apart from her.
"Actually, I do want to get married," Sakuta said.
"What brought this on so suddenly?"
"I want to have a happy family with you."
"Right right, so? Are you coming home now?"
"That's the plan, I have something to ask that Futaba."
"I see. Well, I'll talk to you later."
Sakuta waited for the call to end and put the handset back and returned the remaining coin to his wallet before turning around to leave.
"Geh," he couldn't help but see when he saw someone standing behind him. Yuuma's girlfriend, Kamisato Saki, was standing four or five metres away.
"What's 'geh' supposed to mean," she asked, looking at him with her hands on her hips.
Their gazes locked for several seconds without them saying a word. Deciding that was a good thing, and because he didn't have anything he needed to talk to her about, he immediately went to change back into his shoes.
"Hey," she called sharply, her displeasure evident in her words.
Sakuta continued to just put on his shoes.
"Pretending you can't hear me is seriously annoying," she said coldly.
Sakuta gave a mental sigh and turned to face her.
"My bad, I just didn't even dare dream that you, Kamisato Saki, seen as the cutest girl in our class would talk to me, the class loner. Uwah, I'm so surprised," he answered in a dull monotone to convey his own mood.
"What's with you, that's seriously annoying," she said, looking at him like he was trash. How humiliating. If he was going to be looked at like that, he'd prefer it to be by Mai, that would end up being a reward for him, but from Saki, it was just unpleasant.
"I'm well aware I'm being annoying," he answered.
Of course he would be annoying if he was called annoying, but particularly the lack of denial about her being known as the cutest must have been pretty pleasant for her.
"What'd you want then?" He asked. "Here to ask me to break up with Kunimi again?"
"I'm the one dating him."
"We're actually fudge packers."
Saki didn't answer, but her cheeks reddened slightly.
"You're interested in that, Kamisato?"
"Rest assured, I don't either. I'll pass on men, I like women. So much so that if I try and write 'woman', it ends up as 'wow, man'."
"What are you on about?"
"So, to avoid me getting even more troublesome, hurry up and get to the point."
Mai was waiting for him at home, so he wanted to get back quickly.
Even though she had started the conversation, Saki hesitated slightly, looking around like she was searching for the words.
"Azusagawa, you're friends with that woman, right?"
He remained silent.
"What?" She asked.
"By 'that woman', I assume you mean Futaba?"
"The lab coat woman."
"So yeah, Futaba."
Saki shut her mouth again, but this time her gaze immediately returned to his with her usual expression of confidence, the first expression he had seen from her.
"That woman's doing some pretty risky stuff don't you think?"
For a moment, he thought she was talking about Rio's Adolescence Syndrome, but she had said 'doing', which didn't fit with that, and it made him feel a little uneasy.
"What, is she making a bomb in the lab?" Asked Sakuta to prompt her, unable to derive what she meant on his own.
"Huh? Are you an idiot?" She looked at him, disgusted from the bottom of his heart.
"What then, just hurry up and tell me," he prompted, keeping a hold on his anger.
"She…" Once again, Saki stopped speaking. This was the first time he had seen her so inarticulate and just as it was starting to grate on him, Saki sad something unthinkable. "About a week ago… she took a picture of what's under her skirt."
It took a moment for him to understand what she'd said.
Silence fell between the two of them and they could faintly hear the calls from the gym.
"Huh?" Sakuta finally managed after about five seconds.
"I'm telling you! She took her phone camera, and…" Saki slipped her own phone under her skirt and crossed her legs, taking some strange pose that managed to hide her underwear.
"I guess some perverted games are popular with schoolgirls at the moment."
"Kamisato, are you turned on?"
"Keep things in moderation."
"Like I said, it's not me! It's that woman Futaba! You're really annoying, just die."
The last sentence was said in a cold tone, all-together seriously. Sakuta realised he'd pushed her too far and apologised mentally.
However, he couldn't believe what Saki had said.
"She is," nodded Saki at his question to himself.
Futaba didn't reply further and they just looked at each other for several seconds.+
"…So, was that it?"
Sakuta was plenty surprised, and honestly more so at this than there being two Rios. However, he hadn't seen it himself, so it didn't feel really realistic, so he couldn't help but be less moved by it than Saki.
Besides, after Adolescence Syndrome, Sakuta was prepared to accept far more ridiculous things.
"You don't get it at all, do you, Azusagawa?"
"She took a selfie up her skirt? I get that."
"Don't you think she might be showing it to someone?"
"You really didn't," she said, looking aghast at his perceived stupidity.
"I don't get what you mean by showing it to someone, ain't the foggiest."
Saki averted her eyes at Sakuta's statement and started messing with her phone, her expression bored.
She then raised her face from her phone and approached him with long strides and that bored expression on her face. The breeze carried a citrus scent to his nose, probably Saki's perfume.
"Here," she said, thrusting the screen in front of Sakuta's face.
It was someone's twitter account. The display picture was just a photo of her mouth down, so it was hard to tell who it was, but Sakuta had a single idea. The two small moles on the right side of her lips were in a rather similar place to Rio's.
The top post was 'just a little', and posted yesterday with a single photo. It was of her blouse with the top three buttons undone, and open somewhat sexily. The angle from above gave a brilliant view of her cleavage.
The photo was only a narrow shot, but it looked like a familiar school uniform.
"This is that woman's hidden account."
"An account kept secret from real life friends and acquaintances," Saki told him tiredly.
Were these dozen-odd characters really that?
"That woman doesn't seem to have a public account, so it could be either though."
"So, why do you know about Futaba's secret account?"
A hidden account would have no meaning if people that knew her in real life could find it. They weren't friends, or even acquaintances, so they wouldn't exchange accounts.
"I saw her phone when I went to the lab earlier," Saki easily admitted to taking it upon herself to look.
"Seriously, what are you getting up to while your boyfriend's playing his practice match…"
"This has nothing to do with Yuuma!" Saki overreacted, glaring at him.
"What, are you fighting?"
Saki remained silent and just glared murderously at him. Apparently, he was right, and something had happened in the intervening days since their beach date.
"Well whatever, Futaba's been careless and you've been reckless," Sakuta said. Thanks to that, Sakuta had come across some information he wouldn't have otherwise, but… "Do you go through Kunimi's phone like that too?"
Saki didn't say anything and just kept glaring with the same scary expression as early. Maybe that was what had caused the fight. Best not to follow that rabbit hole any further, he thought, before the anger was directed his way.
"Can I look?" He asked.
With that, he took Saki's phone and scrolled through the submissions.
He soon reached the end, there weren't more than ten. The first one was a picture of her pyjamas, a fluffy, hooded set, with shorts for the bottoms, so her legs were clearly visible with her soft thighs at the top. Her soft, arousing thighs. It had been posted with 'I'll post again if people like it'.
There were nine other similar posts, none of them with the face showing. The first post was dated the twentieth of July, a week prior.
On each of them were long threads of responses.
These are good thighs!
Those PJs are cute, I want to wear ones like that!
A high schooler? With THAT cleavage!?
That 'I' shape shows these are natural, fake ones make a 'Y'…
Lol, here comes the tit-maestro.
And so on… Many responses asking for more, and to see more.
"If that's really Futaba."
"I'm sure," Saki snapped in confirmation.
"Why's she doing it then?"
"To get more followers."
She currently had around two thousand.
"What does that do?"
"It doesn't do anything."
"The sexy stuff is because she wants attention," Saki told him.
"I see," Sakuta agreed, still not really getting it, he couldn't see a reason for her to take the pictures, or to upload them. Thinking logically, it was a stupid action, that was all. But Rio herself would definitely know that, so if there was a reason she would so so despite that knowledge, it didn't come to mind.
"When do high school girls do this kind of thing?" He asked.
"Just tell me without the bluster."
"I already said I don't, are you an idiot?"
"Even though you take these photos?" He asked, showing her a photo he had opened up.
It was a selfie of Saki hugging a metre tall bear, a character with a fiendish 'Gaburincho bear~' expression.
"H-hey, don't just go through my phone! What are you thinking!?"
"When you complain at people, it's important to remember what you've done yourself."
She snatched the phone back off of him.
"Geez, you can just ask her about the rest," she said before stalking off in a huff.
"She has a strange way of worrying about people," Sakuta muttered to himself as he watched her leave. She had a strange sense of justice.
"What now then…?"
Now that Saki had left, his thoughts turned back to Rio. She was now in the physics lab performing some experiment, so talking to her would be simple, but he had noticed something.
The account Saki had shown him had the first photo posted a week ago, and Rio had said yesterday that it had been three days since there was another Rio. In other words, a week ago, there should have only been the one… so Rio was taking erotic selfies and uploading them before her Adolescence Syndrome was an issue.
"Honestly, what do I do…"
He had the knowledge that there were high school girls that used their sex, that used it… or were used for it. The phrase JK Business was often on the news nowadays.
Sakuta used to treat that kind of thing as something happening in some far-off country, and wasn't really aware of it. He hadn't heard any rumours of any of his classmates doing so, and had never been involved with anything like it himself.
"I need to talk to someone…" he said to himself, but couldn't think of anyone that was knowledgeable about this kind of thing, "…Actually, there is someone."
They weren't someone he wanted to meet, and even less wanted to be indebted to her, but there was no one else he could talk to.
Sighing, he took his shoes off and returned to the payphone, taking out a business card from his wallet at the same time as the coins.
"Welcome!" Came the adorable voice of a waitress as Sakuta entered the restaurant he worked at, "Huh, senpai?"
Tomoe was the one greeting customers, the doubt on her face was probably because she knew that Sakuta didn't have a shift that day.
"I'm a customer now," he told her.
"Table for one?"
"I'm meeting someone, they'll be here later.
"Sakurajimsenpai?" Tomoe asked hesitantly, with adorably upturned eyes.
"Not him either."
She fell silent for a moment, apparently, she couldn't think of anyone else he would be meeting.
"An imaginary friend?" She asked rudely.
"I'll grope you," he warned.
Immediately, Tomoe covered her backside.
"Wouldn't you normally think I was talking about your chest?"
"You know I haven't got enough chest to grope."
"When did our relationship get so erotic?" He asked.
"I-I didn't mean it like that!" Tomoe protested with a pout.
"Well, you're really cute, Koga."
"That's enough, this way."
That should have been a compliment, but Tomoe didn't seem pleased and showed him to an inside booth while complaining under hearth breath. It was table number five, where Mai had been sitting yesterday.
Sakuta sat down obediently.
"Senpai, why are you in uniform?" Tomoe asked as he did.
"I went to school."
"For remedial lessons?"
"I'm not you."
"I don't have any either."
"Just some errands," he told her.
"Hmm," she noised, dissatisfied at him avoiding the question as she glared at him. She didn't question him further though.
"Just access to the drinks bar," Sakuta gave his order.
"Right, enjoy yourself," she said with a smile and a polite bow after putting the order into the terminal.
It was then that the customer bell rang.
"Welcome!" She called as she trotted over to the entrance.
However, she soon returned to Sakuta's table.
"U-umm, your guest," offered Tomoe with a nervous expression, looking questioningly towards Sakuta. This was because of the 'guest' at her side.
She was a woman in her late twenties. She was wearing a cool-looking white blouse and an adult pair of trousers that went down to her calves. She had a light coating of makeup that gave her an active impression, like that of a news reporter… that said, she was a real-life news reporter.
"I thought things had gone too far between us, but then you called me and asked me to meet," said Nanjou Fumika as she sat down opposite him with a smile.
"Stop talking like a wife counting down the days to her divorce."
"Oh, you got it," she said, apparently having actually been going for that set-up.
"Would you like anything to eat?" Tomoe asked, holding out a menu.
"Could I get a cheesecake and drinks bar set?" She asked without taking the offered menu, giving a smile to Tomoe.
"R-right, a cheesecake and drinks bar set."
Tomoe entered the order with jerky movements, looking at Sakuta as she did, but obviously couldn't ask what kind of relationship they had.
"Enjoy yourselves," she said as she left the table.
"She was cute," Said Fumika.
"Right?" Agreed Sakuta.
"What are you so proud of?"
"She's my wonderful kouhai," he told her.
As he spoke, Sakuta stood up and headed to the drinks bar, making two coffees, one hot and one iced.
When he got back, Fumika already had her cheesecake in front of her, and already having started to eat as the pointed end had been broken.
"Here," he said, placing the coffee cup in front of her.
"Thanks" she replied, immediately putting her glossy lips to the cup and blowing lightly over it.
"You wanted to ask about how high school girls live nowadays, right?" She asked.
She was currently focused on a lunchtime variety show as the assistant presenter. It was wide-ranging, covering entertainment, politics, and economics, among other things. They often touched on issues and society in general concerning minors, so Sakuta had gotten in contact with her, assuming that she would know about it.
"There's been a lot with issues on online dating sites and compensated dating with the JK Business recently," Fumika recited as she had on the phone. Then she had gone so far as to say that she was free now, and come to meet him. She then let her true aim out, "Ah, of course, I'd like to interview you at some point to make up for this."
"I don't get what you mean by that," Sakuta said.
"You should know what I want even if you won't say so."
Even so, Sakuta maintained his carefully blank expression. Sakuta rather liked her frankness at times like this, and would probably like her if she didn't want to report on him. However, that was exactly why he couldn't let his guard down.
Fumika wanted to know about the Adolescence Syndrome that Sakuta had experienced. The abnormal incidents would never be accepted as the truth by society, and he'd be denounced as a braggart and maybe even hounded by cameras. There was the risk that that could involve Mai, Tomoe, and Rio right now.
"So, what exactly did you want to know about?" She asked, ferrying a bite-sized piece of cheesecake to her mouth.
"About girls taking pictures of their cleavage and putting them on social networks."
"Is that voluntary? Or are they being coerced by someone on some dating site?"
"I think it's voluntary."
"So that's it…?"
"What do you think?"
"I think that high school girls grow up quick nowadays." Fumika's gaze slipped past Sakuta. He turned to follow her look to see a group of four uniformed students crowded around a phone, laughing away, entirely in their own world. "Back when I was in high school, I didn't have any cleavage no matter how much I tried."
"I don't really care about your development."
The white blouse that she was wearing now couldn't hide the large swell of her chest.
"And yet I can still feel your gaze right on my chest?"
"As far as the conversation goes, think of looking like a compliment."
"It could be because men react like that," she suggested.
She only continued when Sakuta's silence made it clear he had no answer, "Because there's a demand for it," apparently she was now moving to the main topic, "when I feel your gaze on my chest, it gives me no small amount of satisfaction."
"Being seen as a woman is important in its own way. Well, it depends on who by, I'll pass on perverts and bosses using their position for that."
"So they upload pictures like that for that satisfaction?"
"That's one reason that their actions can escalate. First, it starts with their legs, a hint of underwear, then they get comments like 'nice', 'show us more', and 'I want to see a swimsuit next', and it all gradually escalates."
Sakuta just looked wordlessly at her.
"You don't look like you believe me, but girls that I've interviewed have all said it differently, but said something like 'I wanted to think someone needed me'." He really didn't get it. "Sorry for putting this slightly out of order, but girls that do this tend to have a stronger sense of isolation than others."
"They couldn't make friends at school, or things didn't go well… They don't talk with their family much, or have a strong sense of expectation from them, and either way can't come to a mutual sense of understanding… then they start to think no one understands them."
"I see," Sakuta said, mostly just nodding along, barely understanding anything.
"But because of that, they're always looking for validation, and I think that as soon as anyone says something nice, they're satisfied."
"So because that makes them happy and satisfied, they think they need more and escalate, like you said earlier?"
"But what do they think of what they're actually doing? Do they think it's right, do they want to do it?" That was the question most on his mind.
"The second-year I interviewed said she always felt dirty doing it, like she was pathetic taking pictures of herself in her underwear and that she was embarrassed… Then when she uploaded them was worried about not getting any replies, or that even if she did they'd be things like 'cow', or 'creep'."
"Then surely they can just stop?"
Thinking that they shouldn't have in the first place was probably too simplistic.
"That unease and worry is the problem," said Fumika, before continuing when Sakuta frowned in thought, "The bigger that unease and worry gets, the bigger the happiness when they get positive responses."
Sakuta nodded, understanding how that amplitude could make them happy.
"The simple word 'nice' gets rid of that discomfort and gives a huge sense of satisfaction it seems," added Fumika.
"But isn't that counterintuitive?"
"It is, it satisfies them temporarily… but their discomfort soon returns and they want more."
"So it's to bury that unease and loneliness…?"
"It creates a vicious cycle that's hard to escape from. They don't want anyone close to them to know, so they can't talk to them. It starts as just giving into temptation slightly. I suppose that's what it seems like… from the girls I've seen at least."
He thought that he understood, but didn't have any confidence that he actually could.
"How should you bring it up?" He asked.
"The worst option is saying things like 'don't do stupid things like that'. They know what they're doing is stupid, and don't think they can be forgiven for it."
He could understand that at least. Memories of when Kaede was bullied passed through his mind. When she stopped going to school, people had told her 'you've got no will-power' and 'get a hold of yourself'.
But Kaede wasn't distancing herself from school because she liked to, she hadn't become a home-loving girl like that.
Kaede had suffered not going to school and had tried to do better, but even now he thought that it might have just made her wounds worst.
What was necessary was to understand her feelings, and for people to praise her for the effort. She didn't want to not go to school, she wanted to but couldn't. She needed people that could understand that.
Sakuta had come to understand that from her wounds… and Shouko had finally explained it to him. Explained that he should give her happy words instead.
"Well, you probably already know that much," she said.
Even so, he was grateful to have had it put into words, while he may have somewhat understood it, it was important to ready yourself before you confronted that kind of situation.
"Not at all, thank you."
"Seeing you come so meekly to me is a precious sight, am I close to getting you?"
"This and that are separate things."
"Oh my, what a shame," she said, not seeming particularly upset at all as she ate the last of her cheesecake. "Were you asking about a friend?"
"How could you be so cold? Even after I told you all this."
"It's a friend, yes."
Letting her make it seem like she was doing him a favour would get irritating, so Sakuta admitted it easily.
"Be careful then," she told him.
"I intend to be."
The question was actually what he could do.
"Once things are online, they're rather difficult to remove. Once they're there, stopping isn't necessarily the end."
That was also an issue, it wasn't necessarily a lie that they would stay with you for your entire life when you did something like that.
"Even if they don't show their face, there's still the risk of being identified, being found, or being caught up in issues or crimes. Phones with GPS can include location information in photos depending on the settings."
While it could be convenient, once that information was out there, it couldn't be contained as it propagated at the speed of light.
"There are still pictures of my skirt getting blown up during a broadcast, it's a real issue."
"Aren't you glad to be in demand?"
"I was wearing black underwear then, so I got awful calls like 'You're so shameless, wearing those on daytime TV'. I wanted it to be forgotten quickly, but I still sometimes see it on the internet when I'm researching."
So would they have been fine if it was at night? Sakuta wondered. He didn't get people that would go out of their way to call up and complain.
"Well, that's enough about me," Fumika said with a smile.
"What?" Sakuta pressed her to ask what she wanted.
"What kind of relationship do you have with Sakurajima Mai-san?"
"We're schoolmates," he answered dully, slaking his thirst with his iced coffee.
"Is that all?" She asked, clearly doubting it, with some basis as well.
Sakuta had allowed his scars to be photographed in exchange for information about Mai, and Mai had then negotiated to avoid it being published, offering the news of her own return to show business.
In essence, Mai had covered for him, so of course, Fumika thought there was something more than being schoolmates there. If anything, it would be stranger if she didn't think that.
"She hasn't had any love scandals yet, so something like 'She's found a boyfriend' would be a great scoop."
"In that case, I would never answer that in an interview I think."
"I think there are other companies aiming for that too, so take care. I can't accept our relationship souring because of something like that."
"I understand," he answered. Though he didn't know how realistic that was, Mai didn't seem to be worried about it at all. During the last term, they had normally gone too and from school together and she had stayed at his house yesterday with great pleasure. Either she didn't feel any sense of danger from doing so, or was doing it despite the knowledge. He should check with her when he got home.
"So?" Fumika asked, leaning forward conspiratorially.
"How far have you gone?" She asked girlishly, her eyes sparkling.
Sakuta couldn't help but look aghast at her.
"Have you kissed?" She continued, unconcerned.
"Well? Have you? Have you?"
"You sound like an old gossip."
"You can tell me that much," she sulked childishly, slumping back into her chair.
"Do you not have a boyfriend?" Sakuta returned bluntly.
"You know, listen to this, he's awful…" She started, before complaining about her boyfriend for over an hour.
They had been dating since they were students and they were the same age. He worked at a major communications company and they had been living together for three years. Fumika seemed to be waiting for a proposal, but he didn't seem to feel the same way. It seemed that compared to her work as a newscaster, he wasn't quite there yet, so she told him about what he had said last night.
"So what happened in the end?" Asked Sakuta, having been swept up in her anger as well.
"He said that we should break up if I don't like it. I could get a pro-baseballer, definitely." She said, but it still seemed like she liked him.
In exchange for all of the information she had given him, Sakuta continued on through that conversation for the whole hour.
Sakuta was walking towards home alone after parting with Fumika at the restaurant. The time was approaching seven PM, and though he couldn't see the sun itself, the sky was still plenty bright enough.
As he passed by a nearby park, he could hear cicada calls from the trees just inside. There was only the one calling, and from the call itself was probably a large brown cicada. There were many more around noon, enough of them to make a real racket, but the cry now seemed somewhat sad.
Sakuta stopped and looked up at the tree, but couldn't spot the actual insect.
"…Isolation, huh?" He muttered unconsciously. That was the word that had most concerned Sakuta from the earlier conversation, the word that had lodged itself in his chest. If what Fumika had told him was the case, then Rio would be being tormented by that isolation. "She doesn't really have the personality to fit in with any of the groups in class."
Rio's argumentative nature would definitely backfire in those communities that required empathy and sympathy. Rio herself probably knew that as well, and that might be why she always distanced herself from their classmates.
She only spoke with Sakuta and Yuuma, perhaps that wasn't enough. Or perhaps she was isolated outside of school as well.
"I wonder what things are like at her home," Sakuta wondered to himself, giving up on searching for the cicada and heading home again.
Sakuta had never visited her house, and didn't know what kind of home she lived in, whether it was a detached house, a flat, or something else. He didn't even know what her parents did for a living. All he knew was that she lived one station up the Odakyu Enoden line from Fujisawa Station, in Honkugenuma. It was a little late, but Sakuta only now realised that he knew surprisingly little about Rio's personal information. She didn't tend to speak about herself without prompting, and only answered questions with what was actually necessary, so there were rather few opportunities to learn about her in derailed conversations.
"Well, I can just ask her in the end," he said. After all, you couldn't change a situation by just watching from afar, so he would just need to involve himself even if it would make her think he was annoying.
These were the thoughts that occupied Sakuta's mind as he yawned into the sky.
"I'm back!" Called Sakuta as he opened the door.
There was no response though. Normally, Kaede would come pattering out to greet him, but even as he looked towards the living room, there was no sign of her.
"Maybe they're asleep," he said as he took off his shoes and headed inside and washing his hands before entering the living room.
As he had thought, Kaede was lying in front of the TV, napping with the two cats.
"Welcome back," came a voice from the kitchen, making Sakuta turn to look quizzically in that direction.
Rio was standing there with a flame under a pan, stirring the contents to avoid it burning.
"Futaba, what're you doing?"
"Making curry," she answered.
"Dressed like that?" He asked in turn, pointing out the lab coat she was wearing.
"The curry might splash," she defended.
"Is that even edible?"
Her appearance was like a scientific witch, an expressionless, logical witch, and she seemed like she might have even added some dubious chemicals.
"I followed the recipe to the letter, so it's fine."
Now that he looked, Sakuta could see an open recipe book next to the pan that he had bought when they first started living on their own to learn how to cook. He had barely opened it recently, so had forgotten where it even was.
"Oh yeah, where's Mai-san?" He asked. Kaede was still sleeping on the floor in front of the TV, but Mai was nowhere to be seen.
"She's reading a script in your room. She also said to tell you to go see her as soon as you got back."
"I'll go get changed while I'm at it then," Sakuta couldn't calm down if he was at home in his uniform, it was uncomfortable, "I'm one of the ones that gets changed right away when they get home."
"I didn't want to know," Rio retorted, not taking her eyes away from the curry.
Sakuta moved to his door and knocked, just in case.
"Mai-san, can I come in?" He asked.
There was no reply. He'd gone through the right motions, so even if she was changing when he entered, she shouldn't be angry. While hoping for a happy coincidence along those lines, Sakuta opened the door.
He immediately saw her, she was lying on the bed, her legs about a shoulder's width apart as her eyes scanned over the script in her hands.
She was wearing a hooded top and a pair of trousers that came to just past her knees. The calves of her legs, usually hidden by black tights, were visible.
Her expression was stern, and her piercing concentration mixed into the air of the room, giving it a strained atmosphere. It really didn't feel like he should call out to her.
For the time being, he quietly entered and carefully shut the door before kneeling in the corner of his room and waiting, naturally sitting in deference to the tension she was creating.
The steady rise and fall of Mai's chest showed that she was breathing, and the repeated blinks made it clear she wasn't about to slip off to sleep. Sakuta decided to kill some time so he wouldn't cause a nuisance. He looked around his room and saw that it was beautifully tidied away. She really had cleaned up for him, and even the three-month-old magazine he had just dumped on the floor was neatly put on the desk.
With nothing else to do, he stretched his hand out for it. Like Mai had said on the phone, there was an idol group adorning the cover, seven fifteen or sixteen-year-old girls with smiling faces. Looking more closely at their clothing, he could feel the edge of something like a rock-band. Mixed with their nature as a group of idols, it ended up like a well-made Halloween costume, looking cute and stylish.
Flipping the magazine open, the first few pages were a gravure shot of the girls, with introductions for each of them. Apparently, they were called 'Sweet Barrette', and they were introduced with 'Is this year their break!?' in big, shiny letters.
Suddenly, his eyes caught one of their profiles, under the heading of 'Favourite thing', beneath height and hometown, was 'Sakurajima Mai'.
Her name was Toyohama Nodoka, sixteen years old. Despite the other members all having black hair, she alone stood out with her blonde hair. Wouldn't you usually say something like 'strawberries' for that? Sakuta wondered. The other six had all written things like that.
Sakuta ended up reading their profiles unexpectedly closely and then closed the magazine and returned it to the desk.
Checking on Mai again, he saw her pretty lips moving, maybe she was reading along to the lines, he thought.
"…Mai-san?" He called quietly, tired of waiting.
Mai didn't shift at all.
"Does that mean I can play whatever sexual joke I want?"
"I can hear you," she said, finally looking away from the script to Sakuta.
"Did I interrupt you?"
"If I didn't want to be interrupted, I wouldn't have read the script here, welcome home."
"It's good to see you again."
Mai closed the script and sat up, re-seating herself on the edge of the bed. Sakuta went to sit next to her.
"You sit on the floor," she said, like she was pointing at a kennel.
Sakuta reluctantly sat down on the floor.
"Your manager came?"
If Mai wanted something with him, that was what came to mind, so Sakuta started the conversation.
"She did, but she's left."
"Did you talk?"
"We did, that's why she came here."
Well, of course. Judging from her slight displeasure, Sakuta could more or less imagine how it had gone.
"What did she say?"
"She didn't say to break up, but that we shouldn't meet alone for a while."
That was more or less as expected.
"Can I ask for their reasoning?" Sakuta asked.
"I've only just started work again, and she wants to avoid a scandal. We only just got an advertisement contract, so we need to be conscious about the sponsors. If it came out that I had a boyfriend, the company's image might be tainted by my own."
"A sports drink seller's stocks will drop just because you got a boyfriend… that's amazing."
Though he had a feeling that it wouldn't affect the drink that much…
"I could understand if I was dating some handsome idol and she was getting complaints from their fans, or if there was an affair with some married actor, but… If just going out with my junior from school, especially one as plain looking as you gives me a bad image, then the world's beyond saving."
"Well, I agree with that."
"Ryouko-san seems to be under the impression that I'm one of those idols she can forbid from dating."
She glanced at the magazine on Sakuta's desk he had been reading earlier.
"Ryouko-san's your manager?"
"Yes, Hanawa Ryouko-san. She hates her surname since it got her the nickname 'Holstein' when she was a child."
Hanawa was said the same as the word for a nose-ring, and from there they went to Holstein cows. Sakuta was sure that the one that gave her the name was some moronic teenage boy, but he could appreciate the naming sense.
"Just so you know, Ryouko-san is slender," Mai told him.
"I didn't say a thing though?" Said Sakuta, keeping quiet that the nickname had made him picture someone with large breasts.
"She said she hates the sarcasm behind it too."
"How long?" Sakuta asked.
Mai's expression suddenly gained some scorn to it as she looked at him.
"I was asking about how long she'd been around," Sakuta defended, of course he wouldn't be asking about how long her bra straps were.
"She's been at the company for three years, and she's twenty-five."
"So, did you agree with twenty-five-year-old Hanawsan's demands?"
"It's not something I can decide on my own, so I postponed it."
"You mean it's for us to decide?"
"Right, it's a problem for both of us, isn't it?"
That sounded nice, a problem for them both. Thought that said, there was only ever really one answer.
It was because Mai knew that that she was in a bad mood.
"I guess we'll have to for a while, won't we?" He asked.
That was the only real choice so Sakuta decided to say that to end the conversation.
"What do you mean by that 'have to'?" Asked Mai, her expression vanishing and her voice becoming toneless.
Mai had been angry at her manager earlier, but now Sakuta felt a lump in his throat.
She was being quiet, but was clearly furious.
"Huh? Why are you angry? Did I make you angry?"
Sakuta thought that if he took it completely seriously, it would turn into a real fight, so he exaggerated his fear.
When he did, Mai's bearing changed and she glared purposefully at him.
"Don't run away," she said, it was scary, but also not, her anger having changed into something more playful.
"It's a strategic retreat," he insisted.
"You really are shameless."
"You shouldn't fight battles you can't win."
"You liar, you fight when you need to."
"That makes me sound pretty cool actually."
"Don't say that about yourself," she scolded, rolling up her script and whacking him over the head.
"Ow. If I start enjoying this kind of thing, I hope you'll take responsibility."
Mai just looked at him.
"I'm sorry, that was a joke," he corrected himself.
"Are you okay with not being able to see me for a while?"
"If you think about it, we've barely been able to see each other recently anyway."
"I'm impressed you can say that in this situation," she said, glaring with narrowed eyes. It scared him, so he decided to go back to the main topic.
"I really don't want to," he admitted, "But, well, your manager's right. You've only just started working again, so you should behave for a while and get your popularity back up, shouldn't you?"
"That's annoyingly logical," she said, but she seemed to have wanted that answer. She had probably known that it would end up like this from the beginning, but still chosen to go through the motions and bring it up as something they both had to decide.
Just as the conversation finished, the door slowly opened and Kaede peeked in from the crack, having woken up from her evening nap.
"Onii-chan, welcome back, are you finished talking with Mai-san?"
"I'm finished," he answered.
"Then Rio-san said it's currytime."
"Not dinnertime?" He asked.
"Ah, it smells good," said Mai. And she was right, the spicy scent filled the room.
The curry was cooked well and turned out nicely.
"Futaba, you'll be a good wife someday," Sakuta told her.
"Anyone can make curry like this," she said, not at all embarrassed.
"The way you cook it makes it seem like an experiment though."
The measuring spoons and scales, often unused by Sakuta, were on the work-surface. It was easy to imagine she had treated the ingredients like she would the reactants in an experiment and measured the spices out to the milligram.
Even though he hadn't seen it, he was sure he was right. Coupled with the lab coat in place of an apron, it made the curry taste vaguely chemical.
Once the four of them finished dinner, Sakuta left with Mai to see her home. They rode the lift down to the ground floor and exited the building.
The sky watching over them was, of course, dark, the time being nearly half-eight. Even so, the nearly cloudless sky looked like a deep blue.
Mai only lived over the road, so it didn't take even a minute to arrive. The two of them stopped a little before the auto-locking doors.
"Good night, Mai-san."
"Yeah, night, Sakuta."
"See you," said Sakuta, raising his hand slightly before turning around.
"…Ah, wait," Mai called quietly.
"Did you want a goodbye hug?" He asked, only to be answered with silence, "Huh? I was right?"
"No… but also yes," said Mai, looking around carefully.
"We won't be able to see each other for a while."
"We won't," he answered, not being able to just say 'yes' to that. But Mai had decided.
"Maybe not until the second term starts."
"I'll go and find some hidey-holes in the school then."
"And you're fine now?"
"You're fine parting like this?" She asked, tempting him with her upturned gaze, keeping her eyes on him even as she cast her head down slightly in embarrassment.
"Umm," said Sakuta, looking away himself. Covertly checking the path to the station and the surrounding area.
"There aren't any pedestrians," Mai forestalled him, making his back stiffen.
"There aren't any cars stopping either."
If they didn't have to worry about pedestrians, then there shouldn't be any paparazzi around either.
He couldn't back out after having said so much, of course he wouldn't.
Sakuta gently placed his hands on Mai's shoulders. Their gazes locked for several seconds and Sakuta moved his face towards Mai's. Her eyes fluttered closed in a probably unconscious action. Mai hunched forwards slightly, tucking her head down. Gazing at her face himself, Sakuta took her lips.
“Ngh…” Came the slightly erotic noise from Mai’s nose, her hot breath brushing against his cheek. It tickled oddly. Focused as he was on her lips, Sakuta forgot to breathe, and pulled away from Mai just as he began to feel the lack of oxygen.
Mai looked at Sakuta as if nothing had happened, but she couldn't hide the blush on her cheeks.
"D-don't you have anything to say?" She asked after several seconds.
"Thank you for the feast."
"Idiot," she said, sounding like she was trying to hide her embarrassment.
"Then, I want seconds."
"You really are an idiot," she said again, this time meaning it, her embarrassment fading into exasperation, what a waste, "We'll continue this later."
"Eh, but the fires are burning now, you can't ask me to hold it in."
"You're not a monkey in heat, so bear with it."
"You're the one that made me a monkey in heat."
"I don't need a monkey boyfriend."
"I was only answering your pleading."
"I-I wasn't pleading at all."
"You were really damn cute then though."
"You can't say that," Mai protested, "you'll get carried away."
Sakuta just stared into her eyes.
"Don't look at me like a dead fish either."
"It was supposed to be like an abandoned puppy."
"You have zero acting talent, actually, it's more like negative acting talent," she said harshly, "good night then."
Sakuta tried to wordlessly resist.
"Sakuta, I said goodnight," she repeated as one would to a misbehaving child.
"Good night," Sakuta replied flatly.
"I'll call you."
"Uwahh, I'm looking forward to it."
"Hahhh…" Mai let out an exaggerated sigh. A deep, deep sigh. "You're only allowed to be selfish for today, okay?"
After saying that quickly, Mai took a step closer and stretched up, putting a gentle kiss on Sakuta's lips, a short kiss with fleeting contact.
"This won't happen next time," she warned him.
"Eh? That's the system?"
"It is," Mai smiled happily at playing with Sakuta before twirling around and going inside, disappearing from his sight.
"Damn, I'm way too wound up now, what do I do…"
However, Sakuta couldn't just spend the rest of the day in arousal, he still had things to do today, he had to go home and have an important conversation with Rio.
"I wonder if I can leave Futaba until tomorrow…" Deciding that he probably couldn't, Sakuta retraced his steps back home.
When he got back from seeing Mai home, Kaede was in the bath and Rio was reading a hardcover book at the table, probably a novel.
The kitchen, which he had intended to tidy once he got back was already clean, the pots and pans put away and the leftovers boxed up and in the fridge.
"Sure," she replied shortly, focused on her book, "You took a fair while to see her home," she added oddly meaningfully, but didn't seem to be condemning him. She just sounded like she was stating a fact.
"What are you reading?" He asked.
"Your sister said it was good and lent it to me," she answered, lifting the book to show him the cover. The title was The Naked Prince and the Unhappy Witch, and the author was Yuigahama Kanna, Kaede's favourite author.
Sakuta had read many of her books at Kaede's recommendation, but not gotten in to any of them. Most of them didn't have endings he was happy with, they all left an unpleasant aftertaste. When he told Kaede, she said she hadn't recommended those, but…
"Is it boring?"
"Hm? Not really… It's about a girl that just got her first boyfriend and's worrying about it." Just hearing that he could tell the story was pleasant. "Her boyfriend is popular… so she worries that someone 'plain like me' isn't good enough for him, and if a pretty girl comes near, she starts hating herself and thinking that they would be much happier together than he would with her. She's still not honest though, so she takes that out on her boyfriend."
That was a fairly specific description, and it sounded like the girl was rather irritating.
"Is it enjoyable?" Sakuta asked simply.
"It is, I can sympathise with her personality."
"Is that really fun…?"
"Girls are creatures of sympathy and empathy," she told him, seeming to be analysing it more than feeling it, even though she was a girl herself. If she was analysing herself so objectively, could she really be enjoying reading it?
"I'm done in the bath, I'm really warm," came Kaede's voice, prompting him to pass her a drink from the fridge. "I'm really chilly now!"
"Futaba, you can go ahead into the bath."
Rio finally looked up from her book and directed a scornful gaze at him from behind her glasses.
"Just to make things clear, I have no intention to do anything with your bath broth."
"You got it?"
"You needed to die the moment you said 'broth'."
"…I'm going to go ahead and take a bath then, you sure?"
"I'm sure, this is a good bit," she answered, once more moving her eyes across the rows of characters.
"Is there a kiss scene?"
"She's disciplining her boyfriend by looking at him like excrement on the floor."
That sounded like an interesting scene slightly off from what he was expecting.
"Sounds fun, I'll borrow it when you're done," he said, heading for the bath.
He showered after stripping, scrubbing his dominant arm with body-soap on a sponge, the same way as he always did, before using that arm to scrub the rest of his body. Once he was done, he rinsed the suds off and shampooed his hair, finally washing his face and cleaning everything off with the shower and then soaking in the bath, taking about ten seconds before leaving.
"Futaba, the bath's free."
"Did you use a birdbath?"
"The summer's too warm," he said. Of course, he would take longer during the winter.
"I'll go use the bath then," Rio said, putting a bookmark in between the pages and entering the dressing room, firmly shutting the door. However, the only doors in the house with locks were the front door and the toilet.
He could faintly hear the rustling of clothes beyond the door. Listening in would feel creepy, so Sakuta sat in front of the fan and switched it on, letting the wind cool his body.
"Take me to your leader!" He said into it, but it felt oddly pointless.
After about five minutes of cooling himself, he stood and headed towards the bathroom.
He opened the door into the changing room, hearing a clatter from the bathing area, the basin falling on the floor.
He could see a female silhouette through the frosted glass, with her back to him, apparently she had been in the middle of washing herself.
"Futaba, you got a minute?"
"Can I start?"
"Why do you always talk to me when I'm bathing?"
"Because it arouses me to only have a door between me and a naked girl."
Only silence answered him.
"Probably because it's easier to talk about some things when you're not face to face."
"What's that supposed to mean?" She asked, guardedly. Even so, she began to move again, covering herself in bubbles.
Sakuta stayed away from the door and sat on the dressing room floor. He didn't think that their conversation would end quickly.
"What kind of house do you live in?"
"What are you asking for?" She asked doubtfully, but Sakuta paid her no mind and continued.
"A flat? A detached house?"
"A detached house."
"Is it big?"
"Are there ones that aren't?"
"Are you rich by any chance?"
"Maybe," she answered easily, not really seeming like she was talking about herself. Sakuta had a feeling it was because she didn't see herself as rich, but that it was her parents.
"What do your parents do?"
"My dad's a doctor."
"It's nothing to be surprised at, surely?" She asked.
"Is your house a hospital?"
"He's not a GP, he works at a teaching hospital."
"Is there a rivalry between the two types?"
He could hear the water flowing and washing off the bubbles from the bathroom. After a few moments, Rio's silhouette moved to soak in the bath.
"What about your mother?" He asked.
"She manages an import clothes shop."
"So she's the president."
"She is… so, what did you want to ask?" Came her calm question, having noticed that Sakuta knew a secret about her, "You heard something from the fake, didn't you?"
"Well, it's a bit more complicated than that," he never would have thought that Saki would have gotten involved, "I know what you've done."
"I see," she said emotionlessly, almost speaking to herself.
Silence fell for a while.
"I made the account before the summer holidays," she admitted quietly, "but I didn't know what I should write."
She put it like it was some school exercise.
"Anything would have done, right? Something like 'I'm in love with a hot guy that has a girlfriend'."
"Would other people want to see that?"
"Aren't girls creatures of sympathy and empathy?"
"Besides, they'd just think I was some bitter woman, and say that a hag shouldn't get ahead of herself."
"How humble," he said. At the very least, he'd never once thought Rio was a hag or anything like that. She gave a plain impression, but that was one of her charming parts.
"I'm not insensitive enough to confess to a country-famous celebrity in front of the whole school."
"You're doing something even more daring."
She gave no answer.
"You've never shown me your brilliant cleavage, even though we've known each other for more than a year."
"I've got no reason to give you any service like that."
"If it doesn't matter who you show it to, shouldn't I be fine too?"
"You really are an idiot."
"Mai-san told me that too." In pretty much the same way as well… "I don't really get it, you're usually so guarded."
"…I really hate that you're so perceptive."
"Nope, you're just easy to read," Sakuta told her.
She wore her skirt longer than the other students, and always had her blouse completely done up. She even wore her lab coat in school during a time of the year when most of the girls didn't even wear their vests. On top of having long sleeves, the long hem also hid most of her legs.
"And you still harass me even so."
"I'm always careful to not really step over the line."
"Then you got tired of me and decided to try and make friends online?"
"I wonder… I think it's a little different."
"I think… I might have just wanted attention," she said, mocking herself. She was acting the same way as she always did, she didn't seem to have given in and was just speaking in her usual plain tone.
That actually made Sakuta more concerned though. It was clear that something had happened to make Rio upload the selfies, but that wasn't the case. The gloomy days just piled up and things had ended up like this without anything dramatic happening.
He thought it had been like the glass of her heart being filled with resentment, drop by drop, before finally overflowing. Slowly, slowly encroaching on her, so Sakuta hadn't noticed anything.
"Sexy stuff right from the get-go isn't fair."
"That's all I have."
"Oh, are you that confident with it?"
"…If anything, it's more of a complex."
If that hadn't been the case, he wouldn't have understood why she was so guarded.
"I middle school… I grew as a woman quicker than my classmates, so I got to know how the monkey-like boys looked at me."
"Saying stuff like 'man, her tits'?"
"They actually said exactly that."
Sakuta himself knew about being monkey-like in middle school. Even now, he didn't think that had really changed, they were at the age they were engrossed in female bodies, the age where even bra lines through the school blouse got them hot and bothered. If one or two girls had grown more, they'd be the focus of attention like that, and in Rio's class, it seemed that it had been her.
"One day after school, I came back from taking the class' rubbish for cleaning duty and heard the boys talking about me… then I hated my body, and thought I was dirty…"
It had left a long-lasting impression, either because she was sensitive, or just the shock of puberty itself. Even if it had just happened the once, it would stick in your heart and influence how you lived for a long time in the future, even if you didn't realise that at the time…
"Sorry about that."
"Why are you apologising?"
"As a representative for monkey-like boys."
He heard a slightly tired laugh from the bathroom.
"Since then, I grew to hate the looks from boys."
He got the particulars of what had happened until then, but it was inconsistent with what she was doing.
"But you still post those photos?"
That seemed completely counterintuitive. Rio hated the looks from boys, but even if she hid her face, she was still uploading risqué photos.
"They get reactions."
"Do you want to be fawned over by creepy old men?"
"The only people that can choose are the ones with the charm to be able to, not everyone can get what they want."
"I never asked you to give me the facts."
"Just their reactions made me feel at ease, whoever they were from."
"It certainly sounds like that's not how you wanted it to be."
"That might be why. In the end, I couldn't let go of my hatred of being looked at… which meant that the method I was using was contrary to the goal, creating more stress. Then that made my consciousness diverge, it seems plausible at least," she analysed herself calmly.
"Separating into the 'Futaba that wanted attention' and the 'Futaba who couldn't allow those methods'?"
He thought it sounded ridiculous, but it fitted together well, and Rio could well be right.
"I don't think it's that clear a distinction… but that fits the trend of the explanation."
He looked up at the ceiling, to where the light was flickering. Unrelated thoughts filled his head for a moment, about how he should replace the bulb, but then about how expensive they were, but they soon vanished.
"The other Futaba is still uploading them."
"I know. I checked in the net cafe. I was going to delete the account, but she's already changed the password."
"What will you do?"
"There's nothing I can do," she said resignedly.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"She's me too, she won't just stop easily, if she would she just wouldn't have done it."
"You didn't say no one could stop her easily though."
Rio remained silent.
"What do you want?"
"I want to stop her, if possible."
"Got it, leave it to me."
He hadn't thought of a method, and he didn't think she'd respond to his persuasion. Just like Rio had said, if she would stop easily, she wouldn't have done so in the first place.
It wasn't logical. If it could be stopped logically, then Rio would have been better to deal with the situation than Sakuta. However, it was because it wasn't that the situation had evolved like this.
Sakuta heaved himself up.
"Azusagawa, what are you going to do?"
"I'll go to school tomorrow."
"Talk to her all day."
"And after that?"
"Go the day after too."
"I see… and then talk to her all day again."
"I guess so."
"That sounds annoying."
"Well, you wouldn't come to the beach if I invited you, would you?"
"I'd turn you down, a hundred and twenty per cent."
That was rather persuasive, and definitely what Rio would say.
"You were right," she said, "there are things it's easier to talk about when you're not face to face."
Sakuta pretended he couldn't hear the last sentence and left the room, racking his brain over the increasing questions…