Saturday, March 4, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Three




Sunday morning, I wake up at a reasonable time and get ready.  We’re meeting at nine, and there’s a bus which leaves for Nagasaki at eight fifteen, so I set my alarm with that in mind.  There’s another bus which leaves at eight forty-five, but I feel like that’s cutting it a little close, so I’m going for the earlier one.  This is the first day since I left the hospital that I’m wearing something which isn’t my uniform or pajamas, and I notice that some of my clothes from before don’t quite fit me well anymore.  Pajamas were always loose, and the uniform’s cut is flattering even when it’s too large, but when I go to wear some of my casual clothes I realize just how much weight I lost while I was unconscious all this time.  Half of what I own just looks… Bad, when it’s baggy.


Well, I eventually find something that looks okay, and I’m sure that with Amai around I’ll gain the weight back soon enough!  Now that’s sorted out, I say goodbye to my parents and walk to the bus station.  This town isn’t scary to walk around in alone at all, thanks to No Boys.  Despite being considered delinquents, and technically doing a number of illegal things, their presence keeps violent crime out of Korekara.  It isn’t as if they’ll only stop a mugging being done by a boy; Those girls don’t tolerate any sort of actions which would make Korekara an unsafe environment!  Sure, they contribute to the high rates of theft and vandalism, but chances are any violence done in this town was by them, against somebody with ill intentions.


I sit on the bench at the bus station and cross my legs, keeping my hands in my lap.  To my right is a man reading a newspaper.  He looks like a father, probably one who lives here with a girl in the school and commutes to work in Nagasaki.  A job with an unusual schedule, which doesn’t have Sundays off.  To my left is another second-year from school who I haven’t talked to before because she’s in class 2-1.  I don’t actually know her name, but I recognize her as a student from the other class, “Hey!  Going to Nagasaki for the day?”


“Yeah,” She nods, closing her eyes, “I have to get to the hardware store... I need some parts to repair one of the arcade cabinets in the Video Game club.  How about you?” She opens her eyes again and turns to smile at me.  Those eyes are super green, and I remember her name.  Midori Okano.
Midori Okano


“I’m going to the mall to hang out with some friends,” I answer, and lean forward, “Since when do you have arcade cabinets in there?  Aren’t those really expensive?  I didn’t think that Sayu-chan- Er, Kato-senpai, you’d know her by, would give any club a budget that big…”


“Oh no, our club budget went to computers,” Midori shakes her head, “But uh, we have a new club president this year, and she’s got a lot of money.  Like, so much, she’s rolling in the green.  Just because money can’t get you into this school doesn’t mean nobody at this school has money, that’s a phrase that people who know her tend to throw around!  She’s from a really important family!”


“Well, that makes sense,” I nod, looking up into the sky.  I’m glad I’ll be indoors most of the day, since it’s clouding up, “Important families can have a lot of skeletons in the closet, right?  And rich children are usually skilled since they can afford to take a lot of lessons and such…”


“Yeah… I won’t ask her about it, though,” She kicks her feet, “Inbo-san, she doesn’t seem the type to want to talk about things like that, so I’m not about to bother her,” She closes her eyes again, “Hako-san… Were you always this friendly?”


“Well,” I chuckle, holding my hands to my face, “I really wasn’t!  But, that’s the thing… I could have died, you know, and that makes me think.  I don’t want to die without having a positive impact in people’s lives!  So I decided as soon as I woke up… That I needed to become friends with everybody here at Korekara, if I can.”


“You’re such an optimist, Hako-san,” Midori giggles, “You’re like my little sister that way, I think.  She’s at this school too, a first year,” She leans back against the bench, “But, how do you have time to do something so amazing…?  Doesn’t it bother you, that there are other things that you probably should be doing, rather than talking to people?”


“Well, there’s nothing better for you to do while waiting for this bus, right?” I question, “It’s like that!  I don’t have any skills except for my friendliness, so I never have anything better to do.  I think, that being nice to people for the sake of it is the best thing that I could ever have to do!”


Of course it is.


“I guess that’s a good point,” She nods and crosses her legs, “Hey, Hako-san… Do you have plans after school tomorrow?  The video game club is meeting, so you should come by and hang out for a bit.  If you really want to befriend everyone in the school, well, we’re a bit antisocial.  You might not be able to even meet all of us if you don’t go to our clubroom.”


A great idea.  Normally, it’s a beast to try and meet Mayu Wang and Makoto Narahashi.  And you can take up this invitation after you complete the other necessary actions for Monday, October fourth.


Normally?


Well, I guess that’s not something I should worry about right now.


“Sounds great!  I have a few things to do after school tomorrow, but I’ll definitely make it there,” I nod, then look up as the bus pulls up.  There’s two other stops in town, so I don’t worry about the fact that I haven’t seen any of the others yet; not to mention, they could be taking the later bus.  I stand up, then look at Midori again, “It’s a three-seat type bus, want the window with me? I’ll take the middle, so if one of my friends shows up she can sit in the aisle seat!”


“...Sounds good,” She stands up as well, following me as I get onto the bus and go to a seat towards the middle.  I stand to the side so she can slide over to the window seat, then take the middle one next to her.


“So, Okano-san!” I am, of course, still intending to chat with her, “I don’t play video games, usually, but I know there are all different types!  So what are your favorites?”  I won’t understand what any of her favorites mean, of course, but it’s still a nice thing to know.  Plus, asking somebody about their passion is a good way to make sure you don’t talk too much about yourself, if you’re looking to get to know the other person!


“Well, I like RPGs… Though, my favorite game is the first Sonic game, that’s a classic,” She looks out the window with a soft smile, “My sister and I, we’re somewhat similar.  We both like speedrunning games, you know, but she likes first-person-shooters and that sort of thing more than RPGs,” She turns to me again, “Oh, and I prefer no-glitch runs, but Aoi uses every glitch she can get ahold of… Funny thing about that, she managed to break the record on Pokemon Yellow glitch runs!  You’d think, there wouldn’t be any more time to get shaved off of that, but she did it, somehow…”


“I have no clue what any of that means!” I admit with a grin, “But I’m really glad you have something you obviously enjoy so much, and can share with your sister!  Is she your only sibling?”


“Well, it’s the only thing we’ve ever really done,” Midori mumbles, but then smiles again, “Aoi’s my only siblingh, yeah!  How about you, Hako-san?  Are you an only child?  You seem the type.”


“Wait, is it really that easy to tell?” I question, holding my hands to my mouth, “Wait, don’t gamers have super intense skills of observation, though?”


“And terrible social skills.  My APM has got nothing to do with being able to tell that you’re an only child, Hako-san,” She rolls her eyes, “Anyone could, probably.  I can’t explain it, but you just… Seem like one.  Just like it’s super easy to tell that Nagata-senpai has a ton of siblings, or that Fujishiro-chan has an overprotective older brother…”


“Now that you mention it, you’re right about those two…” I nod, moving my hands back to my lap as the bus brakes at another one of the stops, “Though, I don’t think I know Nagata-senpai personally, so I have no way of knowing if my assumption that she’s from a large family is the truth…”


“Well, I guess I could be wrong too, but I don’t think so,” Midori mumbles, “She just really seems like she’d have a large family…”


“How about me?” I look up to see Sayaka standing in the aisle, face blank, “What sort of family do I seem like I’d have?”  She’s overdressed for the weather, but looking at her this way feels sort of like I’m in on a big secret.  If she really is part of the yakuza, as her finger suggests, then she must have tattoos.


“Hello, Shinku-san,” Midori greets her with a nervous smile, “I… Well, I can’t tell!  You could be an only child, or a huge family, I don’t know… You’re rather mysterious.”


“Sounds about right,” Sayaka nods, then sits down next to me and suppresses a giggle, “Well, Hako-senpai, you just can’t stop making friends, can you?  Maybe your goal isn’t so outrageous after all…”


“My goal is not outrageous in the least!” I grin, holding my fist up in front of myself, “I will succeed, and you can all come along for the ride!”


“And now you’re sounding like a Shonen manga…” Midori sighs, holding a hand to her forehead, then looks between the two of us, “That’s a good small talk question, now that I think about it, what sort of manga do you like?”


“Ah, I may not seem the type, but I love seinen…” I chuckle, looking up at the roof of the bus as it started to move again, “Mature stories like that… The Kanji’s difficult, sure, but I think it’s worth it!”


“...I like Shoujo-ai,” Sayaka answers in a deadpan voice, as if she’s just waiting to see how we’ll react to her statement.


“But…” Midori sighed, “Aren’t those just a little bit too sappy?  It’s so sickly sweet it hurts…”


“I like it,” Sayaka shrugs, “Girls’ love has so many difficulties in real life, it’s nice to see a sweet fiction that doesn’t worry about anything big that can go wrong… Though not all of them are like that either, you know.”


“I guess you do have a point there… If I want those types of stories, I just play dating sims and pretend my protagonist is a lesbian,” Midori chuckled, holding a hand to her chest, “My favorite manga genre is… Actually, I guess all that I tend to read is shonen.”


“I guess shonen is a lot like most video games, so that makes sense,” I nod, then clasp my hands in my lap, “Especially RPGs!”


“Yeah, exactly,” Midori nods, leaning against her other hand which was, in turn, propped against the window at the elbow, “Does that make me seem shallow, only liking one type of thing?  Maybe I should broaden my horizons a bit.  Any recommendations?”


“How about television dramas?” Sayaka offers, holding a finger up, “They’re over the top and full of unfortunate things which happen, and that’s somehow interesting to watch… The struggles of other people and the pain of knowing that everything could just be resolved if not for all the misunderstandings, it’s a rather unique genre.”


“Maybe I’ll take a look, then,” Midori chuckles, looking past me at Sayaka with warmth in her eyes.  I’m glad to be a mediator for another friendship!  That’s important too.  If something was to happen to me, I’d love if I could leave positive relationships between others behind, so that all my hard work didn’t just disappear.  Not that I expect anything to happen to me, of course.


It’s always good to be prepared for any and all undesirable outcomes.  There is no perfect ending, we can’t always go back and remedy our mistakes.


I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean!  Fucko says a lot of stuff that’s strange like that, so I just tune it out sometimes.  It can’t be important if it’s so cryptic, I’m not smart enough for that.


“I have some on DVD, since it can be hard to find good dramas online, and there’s not much cable service going on in Korekara,” Sayaka offers, leaning forward to talk directly to Midori past me, “I’ll lend them to you if you meet me in the 1-1 Classroom after school on… Wednesday.  You’re in the video game club so Monday wouldn’t work for you, and I have somewhere I need to be on Tuesday.  Is that good?”


“Sounds perfect,” Midori chuckles, then looks up as the bus pulls to a stop again, “Oh, are we in Nagasaki already?  I guess that time goes by awful fast when you’re talking with friends,” She stands up, and so do we, filing out when we get the chance.  On the street next to the bus stop, which seems to be shaped like a watermelon, she bids us goodbye and goes on her way to the hardware store.


“The mall’s this way, right?” Sayaka questions as she starts to walk in the opposite direction, and I speed up to fall in step with her, then nod now that she can see me, “Great.  Mori ramen’s on the first floor, near the East entrance… Looks like Amai-nee and Osaka-senpai are going to run a bit late, if they’re on the next bus.  That store’s a bit more of a trek from the bus stop… Not that I mind.  I’ll grab a soda.”


“Huh, I guess you’re right!  I didn’t plan on that, so I can’t think those two would’ve… We’ll wait, of course,” I suppose that Sayaka’s the type of person to plan everything out down to the minute.  Given her line of work, that must be a necessary skill, “Mori Ramen has some cool drinks, you know, not just soda and canned coffee!  The bubble tea shop across the mall partners with them, so they also sell Thai Tea, and some bubble teas… Limited selection, of course.  Milk tea, pudding, tapioca pearls, and red bean paste, which is nowhere near the whole menu, but it’s still nice!”


“Oh, you’ve eaten there before?  I remember where in the mall it is, since it stands out quite a bit, but I didn’t try it,” Sayaka gives a long blink, her gaze far on the horizon as she walks, “If that’s the case, then I’ll definitely get tea with red bean paste.  Red bean sweets, those are some of my favorite things to eat.  Hm, red things in general, if I think about it.  Cherries, strawberries… Red’s a lovely flavor, wouldn’t you agree? I don't care for apples, though.”


“Hm, yeah!  Though I’m partial to orange flavors myself.  Fresh mikan… There’s nothing tastier than that!” I’m drooling just thinking about when it’s going to get colder and become socially acceptable to sit at the kotatsu and gorge myself on tangerines, “Hm, now that I think about it, you like the color red a lot to begin with, don’t you?” I point at her scarf, though the rest of her casual outfit is black, “Is that because of red flavors?”


“Not exactly,” She shrugs, then takes a look around to ensure she won’t be overheard, “My tattoos are red too, even though a blue-green ink is more traditional.  It’s because of my eyes, that’s what it is,” She looks at me and smiles a bit, “Not every Japanese girl with gray eyes is like me, you know, it’s not as dead a giveaway as purple eyes on Tomuras.  The real show is the colorblindness.  Everything looks gray to me, except the color red.”


“Purple eyes?  Huh, I have purple eyes, but…” I think if I’ve seen purple eyes anywhere else, in a different shade from my own lilac, “Do you mean purple like Same-Hakase’s?”


“I couldn’t say, but given how much red she wears I can’t imagine that isn’t the case,” Sayaka mumbles, “Anyway, of course if you could only see one color it would be your favorite.  Same-Hakase evidently expresses it through clothing… Ueda-chan in my class, she collects stuffed animals with red eyes.  And I, I like red foods.  It’s only to be expected.”


“Yeah, that makes sense to me.  So… Ueda-chan, she’s like you too?” I ask, curious about yet another one of my peers, “Is she also an assassin for hire, or is she different, do you know?”


“I’m not at liberty to talk for her, you’d have to ask yourself.  All I can say is that she takes medicine and doesn’t kill anyone these days, though that medicine only works for some people.  Maybe if you got her to trust you, she’d tell you more, but as I said, it’s her story to tell,” Sayaka explains, and I’ll accept that answer.


If you speak to Ayano before the mid-term transfer student Kyoko Shirato arrives, you’ll be doomed.


I wonder how Fucko could possibly know about a future transfer to the school, but then it hits me.  Of course as a partner of the school and a leading force in technology, including those used at stage venues, Assis-co would be aware of an idol transferring to the school in the near-future.  Maybe it has something to do with the rumors I’ve heard that Kyoko is quitting the idol business.  Anyway, that’s not important right now.  Sayaka and I have arrived at the mall.


“It’s another ten minutes or so across the mall to Mori Ramen, but once we’re in a crowd we should talk about something more normal,” Sayaka throws this at me as she steps through the doors, then gets to fueling the small talk she suggested we switch to, “So, Hako-senpai, you said that you like seinen manga.  Which one is your favorite?”


“Hm?  Oh, Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi is my favorite lately!  It’s getting an anime soon, too, so I hope that they do it justice,” I jump on the opportunity to talk about something I’ve enjoyed, even before the coma, “It’s the story of a struggling manga artist who’s uncomfortable with his sense of identity, who travels back in time to save the lives of his classmates in elementary school from a string of murderrs and discovers his innate heroism as he goes.  How about you?  What’s your favorite lately?”


“Well, it’s not so new, but I love Strawberry Panic… All of Kimino-sensei’s work actually, it carrries so many good themes,” Sayaka clasps her hands together and gives a bigger smile than I’ve seen from her, “Admittedly they’re more drama than fluffy shoujo-ai, so if I had to pick one of those I’d say Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid… But Kimino-sensei is such an artist, the deep stories and interpersonal drama between such cute girls who fall for each other, that’s the sort of manga I’d want to create if I was any good at art or writing!”


“I see,” I chuckle, glad to see her so happy over something, “You know if that’s something you’re really passionate about, it’s not too late to cultivate a new skill!  You could be the next Kimino with your love for the genre, if you took the time to learn.”


“There’s no way I could do that… Making mistakes is unacceptable,” She clenches her fist and grinds her teeth together, “And I would make many mistakes while learning.”


“If you think that way, though, you’ll never learn anything new…” I sigh.


“I’d prefer to just continue becoming more perfect at the things which I am already beyond making mistakes at.  Better to be a master of one trade than a failure at many,” Sayaka crosses her arms, “Maybe someday if there’s nothing left for me to learn in my skills, I’ll pick up a new one, but for now I have more than enough on my plate.”


“Well, I guess that’s one way to do it… I guess I can’t say much when I’ve never really become good at anything,” I chuckle, rubbing the back of my neck, “I have no idea what I’ll do for a career at this rate…”


“I think you’d make a good guidance counselor, given the way you are,” She offers,”Though, that’s just my opinion.  I’m open to the possibility of being wrong… I think whatever you choose, you’ll excel at it, though,” As I get to know Sayaka I’m realizing that she has a habit of just saying whatever’s on her mind.


“Maybe so,” I laugh, then look up as we reach Mori Ramen, “Oh, we’re here already!”


“Great,” Sayaka pulls a wad of cash out of her pocket, held together by a paperclip, “I’m going to get a tea with everything, since we should wait to decide if we want to eat until the others arrive.  Do you want anything?  I’ll buy for you.  The others too, if you know their orders.”


“I like it with bubbles and pudding,” I answer, then think back and remember that I have actually noticed Rena’s order before, back when she disliked me but we happened to both be at the tea shop in Korekara.  It’s owned and operated by one of the alumns, and it’s really good, but since she doesn’t get a ton of business she can’t afford to keep a huge number of toppings in stock, since they may expire.  However, “Amai-chan doesn’t like toppings at all, and Osaka-kun gets hers with just pudding.  At least, that’s their orders in Korekara.”


“I’ll get those.  If it’s wrong, then I’ll just drink the extra,” Sayaka shrugs again, then goes to wait in line.  I stay outside and lean against the wall next to the entrance, but I’m not alone for long before somebody walks up to me; This somebody being my classmate whose family owns the place.


Rin Mori
“Hako-chan!” Rin Mori gets up in my face as she greets me, “I didn’t expect to see you out here so soon after your hospital stay!  I guess that must mean that you’re feeling a lot better, huh?” Despite standing close to me, her enthusiasm isn’t overwhelming, unlike that of her friend Yuuki.  Another track team member, Yuuki’s got endless energy that expresses itself constantly, even in her negative emotions.


“Mhm,” I nod, stepping away from the wall despite having just leaned against it, “I’m here with Shinku-chan, and Amai-chan, and Osaka-kun, though those two aren’t here yet.  Shinku-chan’s buying some tea,” I tilt my head to the side, “I take it you’re out here visiting your parents?”


“Yeah,” She sighs, stretching her arms behind her head, “I miss them, and their cooking from time to time!  But also, I wouldn’t commute to Korekara…” She drops her arms again and grins, “After all, I can’t just leave Yuuki-chan to fend for herself, now can I?”


“I do get the feeling that Satonaka-chan would be a bit of a disaster without a roommate to look out for her…” I chuckle, “Well, it was nice to see you!  I’d talk longer, but I can only imagine that you just wanted to say hello then get back to your family.”


“You’d imagine right, but don’t worry!  We’ll hang out for real sometime, right?” She gives me a thumbs-up, and I nod in agreement before she returns to the store, and once more I’m only by myself for a moment, this time before Sayaka returns with a tray full of drinks.


“That was Mori-senpai, right?” She asks, looking back at the store, “I didn’t think about it before, but is she related to this store?”


“Yep!” I nod as I take my tea out of the tray, “Her parents own it.  I found that out about a month before my coma… If we were in Tokyo I could give you all sorts of trivia, but even though I’ve lived in the area for more than a year now, I still don’t know too much about Nagasaki… I guess that my family and I spent a lot more time out on the town when we lived there,” I decide not to mention that I also spent a ton of time around the city with my group of friends which dissolved in my absence.  No need to make things negative here.


“I’ve had extensive knowledge of many cities, but I can only remember it if I brush up on the information…” Sayaka sips her own tea from the tray.  I notice that she’s got a red straw.  Amai’s is pink, Rena’s is yellow, and mine is orange.  Fitting colors, somehow, which is odd when I consider that at this store, they punch the straws before giving you the tea, “I do know Kobe like the back of my hand, though.  If you’re ever visiting, I’ll give you the tour of a lifetime,” Even when she’s just implying mob activity, Sayaka sounds cool.  I’m glad that she’s trusted me and allowed me to become her friend, even if we only just met.  Sometimes friendships are like that, I guess.  And I guess other times they just fall apart.  That’s life.


“Box-tamaaaaa!” I look up to see that it was, of course, Amai who just called my name, and she’s running towards me.  I stand up straight just in time for her to stop in front of me and crumple forward as she catches her breath, having run through the mall in a sweater just now, “B-Box-Tama, I’m sorry that I’m running late… I thought the bus was faster…” She groans, and I crouch down to hold her shoulders and make sure she doesn’t fall over.


“Hey, just take a minute to catch your breath, Amai-chan!  You must be exhausted, if you’re actually apologizing for something,” I laugh a bit as I reassure her, then wait till she’s breathing normally again to stand up, as does she, “Besides, Osaka-kun still isn’t here, so we’re fine.  Shinku-chan bought tea, if you’d like some?  No toppings, of course.”


“You remembered my order?” Amai questions with wide eyes, then wrinkles her nose and smirks, “Wow, Box-tama.  I knew that you were obsessed with me, but remembering a small detail like that?  Absolutely pathetic!”


“Also, I thought I remembered that Osaka-kun likes just pudding in hers, but… don’t hesitate to tell me if I messed that one up, you’d probably know better than me,” I chuckle, tucking some hair back behind my ear, “After all, I just overheard the one time, I could have forgotten…”


“No, that’s… Correct,” Amai sighs, then takes her plain one off the tray and takes a huge gulp from it before speaking again, “It’s nice to see you, I guess, Sayaka-chan.  I’m glad you and Box-tama are getting along… Makes it more convenient for me.  If you hang out then I can be more efficient in my insults and save my energy for people who I particularly dislike, rather than generally dislike.  Both of you are punctual idiots.  Didn’t anybody ever tell you it’s fashionable to be late?”


“Fashionable, huh?” Rena’s suddenly standing behind Amai, and she hiccups in surprise before she turns around to her, “Well, call coachella because I’m clearly the trendsetter here.”


“It’s not fashionable when you do it!” Amai frowns and balls up her free fist, “Just take your tea off that tray, Box-tama remembered that you like yours with pudding…”


“Oh, thanks Hako-san!” Rena nods to me as she takes hers, and Sayaka pulls her own off the tray to put the drink tray in the trash now that everybody’s holding theirs, then Rena looks to Amai again, “And seeing as you’re drinking it, they remembered that you refuse to take yours with any toppings…”


“Of course,” Amai turns her nose up, “I made an oath long ago that I would only eat food prepared by those in the Oishi family!  Drinking tea doesn’t count, but adding anything solid but ice?  That’s food, so I can’t eat it.”


“She made this oath the day that I tried to make brownies,” I note, and Amai blushes.


“That’s definitely not the reason!  Of course, those brownies were disgusting beyond belief, but I made this decision the day after when your mom brought us fast food for lunch.  I had no idea food could even stoop that low… SO I decided that from that day forward, I would only let food touch my tongue that I knew for certain was prepared without flaws,” She closes her eyes and sips the tea again, “At least it’s hard to make such a distinction between high quality beverages and low quality ones…”


“Says the girl who once drank a cup filled with one squirt of everything from the serve-yourself fountain drink stand,” I tease her again, and the others can’t help but laugh.  I guess I shouldn’t be telling embarrassing stories about Amai, but we’re all friends here, and as much as I love her she deserves it from time to time.


“Well, there are a lot of factors to the quality and taste of something,” She looks away, face red, “Combining beverages is a great way to tone your ability to taste nuance between flavors without worrying about the way it feels in your teeth or throat, or on your tongue, it’s just liquid… Not like food, where if something feels wrong, it makes me want to throw up!”


“You’re really picky,” Rena laughs a bit, slipping the straw of her tea under her mask.


“Anyway,” Sayaka looks up, seeming a bit frustrated by the fact that even though none of us are very tall to begin with, she’s the shortest, “What should we do now that we’re all here?  I assume that Amai-nee doesn’t want to go to a restaurant or anything, so…”


“It’s fun to just spend time together, I think, but we could go try on some clothes in one of the stores… It’s not as fun as shopping somewhere like Harajuku of course,” Amai grins, “It’d be really fun to see that all of you still just look horrible in nice clothes.”


“We could also just look in the dollar store,” Rena offers with a full-armed shrug, “If you think we’d look horrible, then why would you want to see that, huh?  Isn’t it better to see nice looking people?”


“It is, and that’s why I-” Amai starts to refute it, then raises her eyebrows, “Definitely don’t want you to try on cute clothes!  Tried to catch me in a lie there, right Rena-kun?  Well, too bad for you, but I’m far more clever than you could ever hope to be.”


“We could go see a movie.  That’s full of nice looking people,” Sayaka speaks again, and I just smile at her.  This is a nice group to be around, I think.  Everyone knowing how to deal with Amai is a nice change of pace, though it does feel kind of like we’re ganging up on her.


“I think that Amai-chan’s idea is a great one,” I speak up, then look around and everyone laughs a bit as they nod in agreement with me, excluding Amai who just keeps on blushing with her eyes to the floor.  I step closer to her and grab the end of her sleeve, which actually hangs so far past her hand that I’m not even touching her at all, “After all, even if the rest of us do look awful then at least we’ll get to see you in another cute outfit, Amai-chan.”


“Of course you’d say that,” Amai rolls her eyes, then smirks again as she looks at the others, “See?  Told you she’s in love with me.”


“Well, let’s go,” I laugh a bit, tugging on her sleeve as I start to walk towards the escalator, since most of the clothing stores are up on the second floor here.  Rena and Sayaka follow as well, “So Shinku-chan, Osaka-kun, Amai-chan won’t mind if we decide to get some food, so if we do, what would you want?”


“That’s right, I packed a lunch for myself,” She mumbles, “Would’ve made some for you lot too, but I ran out of time, so I won’t be offended if you decide to eat somewhere.”


“There’s got to be a beef bowl place somewhere around this mall, right?” Rena asks, putting one hand on her hip, “That’s pretty good, and cheap too.”


“Money’s no problem,” Sayaka mutters, “My allowance is bigger than I could ever use all on my own, so if there’s somewhere pricey you’d want to eat that you can’t normally, I’m willing to buy,” As far as I can figure, Sayaka’s hit jobs on the side all get paid to the Yamaguchi-gumi;  All of her money is an allowance from them, or as anyone else could tell, from her grandmother.  So she brings in money for the group, and still gets spending money even if she doesn’t do much that month.


“Wait, seriously?” Rena questions, stepping closer to Sayaka, “I thought I already knew who was rich at Korekara Academy!” She holds up four fingers, “Mayu Wang, Gin Sakuya, Shizuka Inbo, and Makoto Narahashi, yeah?  Am I adding you to that list?”


“I wouldn’t say rich,” Sayaka shrugs, “My allowance is a normal income, because I’m on the same level as everyone else in my family.  It’s a family business, so my allowance is more of a salary, and it’s the same as anyone else’s.  If I had more expenses then I couldn’t spend frivilously, but since Korekara houses us and I make a little money at my part time job, I can afford to do this sort of thing from time to time.”


“Yeah, Osaka-kun,” I add in with a smile, “That makes sense to me,” I notice that she hasn’t included me, Hiromi, Sayuri, or Amai; Which is correct.  Though we all went to a private elementary school, that was because of circumstances.  The Oishi sweets shop was doing better then, so they could afford it.  Assis-co paid for me to go, since I was testing their products.  Hiromi’s parents took out a loan trying to get her good education… And Sayuri was still on good terms with her cousin Gin’s family at the time.


“Huh, guess so,” She nods, but then leans next to Sayaka’s face, “So, Shinku-chan, you’d take us out to sushi if we wanted?  It’s been a long time since I had anything pricier than Tomago…”


“Tomago is great, though,” Sayaka mentions, then holds a hand to her chin, “Of course.  There’s a high end sushi shop right here in this mall, if I recall… We can go there later today.  Just keep in mind, I have to be back in Korekara by five.”


“That’s fine,” I nod, “I have to be back by six,” With this, I stop walking and look up at the sign for the store we’re next to, and swing Amai’s hand a bit, “Amai-chan, look!  This store sells some Angelic Pretty items!” I’ve never been very interested in Harajuku fashions, but Amai’s outfits tend to reflect fairy kei, and while AP is a lolita fashion brand, a lot of its products work for her style too.


“Hm…” She looks at the store and tilts her head with a blank stare at the mannequins, “What sort of piece of shit store doesn’t have a theme?  What’s with the different styles on the mannequins?  Even if you sell multiple types of fashion, dress up the mannequins in the window some way that fits together…” Admittedly, the mannequins are rather odd, one being dressed in mostly AP items and the other in something resembling Mori fashion.  Pastels next to earthy colors is strange, but I walk into the store anyhow, and Amai doesn’t resist.
Fashion!



“Huh…” Sayaka mumbles as we sit down at the sushi restaurant, looking at her phone, then turns to me and shows me an email, “This is strange.  Do you think that it’s a scam?”


“A scam?” Rena questions, leaning around me with her hand outstretched, “Let me see it, I know my way around the standard schemes,” Sayaka hands her phone over to Rena, who reads through the email which I didn’t actually get a chance to read over, “Well, this doesn’t seem like a scam.  No spelling errors, no suspicious links.  Why would you think it was?”


“It just seems weird, because I’ve never been to the site that this was sent from,” Sayaka muttered as she took her phone back from Rena, staring at the screen, “Feru Innovations… Not to mention, why would I be invited to a beta?  I don’t even play video games…”


“Let me see,” I ask, and lean over to actually read what her email says.  It’s like Rena said, well-put-together and lacking any hallmarks of something designed to steal money.  In fact, it’s saying that the company will send Sayaka the equipment needed to play their game and no cost to her, “Well, in my personal experience, taking offers from big companies to get cool equipment at no cost to yourself is a great idea.  I’ve heard of Feru Innovations before, so it’s not a fake business or anything.”


“Look, you’re great and all, but I’m not so sure about accepting your judgment on something like this,” Sayaka chuckles, but then scrolls through the email again, “I mean, if it’s legitimate, then there’s no real reason not to accept, right?  Even if I never end up playing, it could be cool to try, then maybe when the main game opens I could sell off the equipment at a better price than retail…”


“I think that sounds like a really great plan,” I nod, then pop a piece of Ebi sushi in my mouth.


--------


I arrive in the infirmary at exactly six.  Iwako looks up from her desk, and seems a bit surprised for a moment, though she still shows no emotion in her voice, “I wasn’t sure if you’d actually come.  Thank you,” She stands up and gestures to a medicine cabinet, “Could you sort these for me?  Over time, they tend to get a bit mixed up.  The shelves are labeled, so it’s not difficult.  Don’t go stealing anything unless you want to die, nothing’s labeled with layman’s names.”


“Okay!” I nod, then step over to the cabinet and pull the doors open, getting to work.  I have no idea what any of these scientific names for medicine mean, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  They really are all in the wrong places… Maybe since her other aid is a spy, she doesn’t trust her to organize the drugs.  Speaking of that aid, I hear somebody else arrive at the infirmary and assume it must be her.


“Ah!  What a busy day I just had, I absolutely spent it out with a bunch of cute girls,” The other aid’s voice is light and airy, with an odd accent.  I look up and realize that I’ve never seen her before, which is strange.  Did she transfer to the school while I was absent?  She steps up to me, “Oh, and who might you be, mon cherie?”


“Box Hako,” I stand up straight as I introduce myself, “I’m a second year.  What language is that?”


Sakazaki Yuu
“It’s French, the language of love,” She explains, holding both hands to her chest as she grins at me, “I’m a third year, so that makes me your senpai.  The name’s Sakazaki Yuu~  I hold two distinct titles.  I am an extraordinary lover, and a chronic truant!  Mystery is my allure, you see.  If nobody knows I exist in this school, I’m so much more intriguing to those who do get the privilege of meeting me!  Of course, I can’t just let romances come of every meeting, seeing as I do have a commitment…”


“If mystery is supposed to be your allure, then why are you telling me so much about yourself right off the bat?” I question, giving her a blank look.  This girl is… Extra.


“Well, if we’re going to be working together, we have to know things about each other!” She comes up with an excuse and tosses her hair back, at which point I see her ear.  She’s got an earring in that looks familiar.


That’s right.


“Hey…” I mumble, reaching into my bag and recovering the purple rose earring I recovered from that bucket of water on Friday, then hold it out to her, “Is this your earring?”


“Eh?” She freezes, then bends over to lean in close to my hand, “Yeah, it is.  I lost it a couple of weeks ago, where’d you find it?  Was it on the floor in here?  I thought I checked the whole place…”


“It was outside, in a bucket,” I explain, pointing in the general direction, “To the left of the school gates, when you’re coming in.  I figured somebody lost it, so I grabbed it in case I found the owner.  Kind of weird that your earring was in a bucket like that, huh?”


“Yeah, I guess my things have a habit of getting scattered all over campus though,” Sakazaki chuckles and rubs the back of her neck, “There was a bit of a housing mixup, see, so I’m sort of living on school grounds right now.  I try to keep my stuff all in one place, but I guess that some things still go awry!”


“Well, that’s a bit odd… Why don’t you get that housing situation sorted out?” I get back to work on sorting the cabinet while I talk to her.  I figure the mixup has something to do with the fact that she’s apparently been sent by somebody to spy on Iwako, but if she’s a third year, shouldn’t she have gotten that fixed by now?  Maybe she just likes living on campus and somehow remaining a mystery to the majority of the student body.  To each their own.


“Eh, it’s fine, I’m used to it by now.  I’m not planning to stick around Korekara after I graduate anyway, so I may as well just wait till then to move out of the dumpster,” She shrugs, then turns back to the doctor, “So, Same-Hakase, please tell me you’ve still got something for me to do and I’m not being replaced!”


“If you want to be replaced, then Hako-san would be a suitable replacement.  If you don’t want to be replaced, clean the cots,” Iwako instructs, and Sakazaki nods as she pulls out cleaning supplies from another cabinet and gets to work.  At least she’s being helpful, even with her ulterior motives, and besides.  Spying on somebody under orders is another thing that I don’t think is that bad.


I’m beginning to think maybe my moral compass is a little bit broken, but oh well!  It works to my advantage given my current situation and goals.  Maybe I’d work on fixing that if things were different, but at the moment, well, why should I?


“So, Hako-san,” Sakazaki starts as she sprays a paper towel with some windex, “You were in a coma for a while there, huh?  I heard about your absence, we all did, but I have to ask… Any clue what caused it?”


“None whatsoever,” I lie with a smile and a shrug, at which point Iwako gives me an odd look.  That’s something which catches my mind; She’s a famous doctor who’s inexplicably tending the infirmary of a school, and who’s being spied on by somebody for some reason.  Wouldn’t she be more curious about my supposed illness, unless she knows something about it?


Well, maybe she’s connected to Assis-co and knows the truth.  That seems to be a plausible answer, if I ignore the possibility that she’s the one who stole Artemis.  Fucko says that it wasn’t her, after all.  That’s another mystery that I need to try solving.


“They say it was an unknown disease,” Iwako adds to the conversation, turning the page on the paper she’s looking over, “Of course, that seems like a lie.  No hospital discovering a new set of symptoms would brush it off like that, after all…”


“A lie…” Sakazaki mumbles, then stares at me, and I can’t hold eye contact with her.  She’s a spy, right?  She must be able to tell that I know it’s a lie, “That’s odd.  Why would a hospital tell a lie like that?  Is there something about you that you need to keep hidden, Hako-san?”


“Something like that,” I mumble, unable to bring myself to refute her claim while knowing that I can’t outright confirm or tell the truth.  I’m floundering, hoping that Fucko will tell me what to say next, but no instruction comes.


“Well, I won’t press you,” Sakazaki giggles now with a wink, “After all, I owe you that much after you found my favorite earring!  Though, don’t think I’ll let you off so easy in the future.  It’s the responsibility of an amazing lover to be a welcome ear for the secrets of girls…”


“I’m sure you’ll learn plenty of my secrets eventually,” I chuckle, but it’s true; Iwako says she’s not a good spy, but I still think that if she has the assignment, she’s bound to have enough skill to get some information on me.  Luckily, that won’t be till later thanks to the earring, and thinking through that progression of events makes me believe a bit more that Fucko is correct about all these strangely specific steps.


“Well, that’s only if we become closer,” Sakazaki chuckles, “As friends, of course.  I have no intention of breaking the commitment that I’ve got.”


“What is this commitment anyway?” I question, “You say you’re… French?  Are you in a relationship with somebody back there?”


“No, she’s Japanese,” Sakazaki trails off, looking off into the distance as she pauses in her cleaning, “Though I have no idea where she is, and neither does she…  But that’s not something that we need to get into!”


“But I want to get into it,” I blurt, then freeze, “Sorry if that was forward of me!  I didn’t mean to sound rude in any way, I just…” I sigh, then turn to give her a sheepish smile, “Well, the reason I’m at this school is to make friends, and just as it’s the responsibility of a great lover to hear the secrets of girls, it’s the responsibility of a good friend to hear the troubles of all!”


“I see…” She laughs a bit, “Well, if you want to hear it, then I guess it can’t hurt to tell you… My girlfriend, Momochan, she’s being held captive by a very bad man.  I found her as part of my job, which is top secret!  We just, the IP is being so blocked that we can’t hack our way through it…” She sighs and sets down the paper towels, “There’s no way of knowing where she’s being kept, is the problem.  That’s why she’s allowed to chat online and things like that… If you wanted to talk to her, well, she could use another friend.  I can get you her username.”


“That’s awful…” I frown, holding a hand to my face.


This is the right course of action.  Momochan can be rescued.


“Well,” I continue, “Definitely get me her username.  My friend’s girlfriend is my friend too, I don’t have to just limit myself to Korekara students!”


“That’s great,” Sakazaki nods and gives me a grin, which makes me feel warm inside.  I’m making a difference, I’m helping people, I’m making friends.

How spectacular.

Next Chapter ->

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