Late in the night, after everyone went to their rooms, Konoko unrolled her new poster impatiently. There was something about it that had stirred up her interest ever since she first set her eyes on it. She couldn't wait until the next day. The paper was brand new, the colors were vivid, and yet the characters' design had a particular feel. They were characters from old and new anime alike, which was what initially got her attention. "What a great experience to wake up every morning greeted by both the anime from your childhood and your current favorite ones!" She had thought. But what intrigued her more was that the old characters and the new ones were not illustrated the same way. Though they made part of the same picture, it was like they were brought from different images. Even so, they still blended so well together that she was wondering if the differences she saw were only a clever optical illusion. The light in her room was definitely not helpful to thoroughly investigate the details, so she had to let that wait until tomorrow. However, there was another curious aspect that she could have examined right away: when she had looked at the poster for the first time while hovering her fingers above the drawings to identify the anime, there was a gliding orange glow accompanying her movements; but the large crowd at the fair left her with no time to examine it.
Just when she was preparing to try again, the window suddenly opened, letting the cold air in. Konoko was startled so badly that her heart pounded. As she hurried to close the window, her hands trembled and her fingers felt numb. After returning to the poster, she no longer remembered what she was doing. She took it gently and glued it with affectionate care on the wall just above her bed's side. During this process, her body slowly regained its composure. She felt so sleepy, a feeling that she hadn't felt in a while. Before shutting off the lights, she looked at the poster once more and a large smile blossomed on her face: tonight she was going to have a good rest.
"Hey! You're up so early!"
"I thought I could help you to prepare the lunch boxes."
Nanako guessed by Konoko's playful smile that she was up to something. She didn't say anything and waited to hear what Konoko had in mind.
"I wanted to go shopping for dinner early, so I said to myself that I could seize the moment and drop you and Ichirou off to college as well."
Nanako looked into her eyes intensely. There was enough time.
"If we leave earlier, perhaps I could make a detour for shopping even before classes started."
Finally, things became clearer for Nanako.
"Oh! You don't know where to go shopping and you wanted us to come with you! Why didn't you say so?"
"It's not that I don't know!" Konoko defended herself. "I can certainly handle it on my own, but I remember you guys had some places that you preferred. It's been a while since I went shopping, so I wasn't sure if they were the same places…"
"Well, I would be happy to go shopping together, but I'm not sure if Ichirou will agree to leaving earlier…"
Konoko made a short bow and placed her hands together in a praying gesture.
"Could you please, please, pleeeeaaasee, talk to him?"
"Pff... Ok! I'm going to give it a try, but I won't insist. If he doesn't want to come, it will be just the two of us and he will be on his own. You weren't supposed to take us to college today anyway, you know?"
As Nanako left the kitchen, Konoko hurried to make the lunch boxes. She could be very fast when she wanted to, though her excitement for today's plans made her cut herself twice. As she was washing her second cut, she wondered if this would have continued as a habit when she cooked dinner too. Hearing Nanako and Ichirou approaching, she quickly set up the table for breakfast, which Nanako had already prepared. Her friends' voices were mild, so she felt relieved at the thought that Ichirou agreed to the plan. Ichirou entered the kitchen just when Konoko was trying to close his lunch box by punching it with her right fist. It was because her cut right thumb that she had difficulties using it.
"What on earth are you doing to my box?" he shouted in horror.
"Oh shut up! It'll be ready in a sec! You can start eating your breakfast if you want."
"Give me that!" The moment he snatched the box from Konoko it was already closed, but it didn't look right. Nanako entered the kitchen as well and seemed pleased with all of the arrangements made by Konoko.
"Why did you let Konoko prepare the boxes Nako?" complained Ichirou while struggling to open it.
"Bring it here Ichirou!" replied Nanako calmly as she sat down at the table. After carefully touching the margins with her fingertips, she managed to remove the lid. It came off a little brusquely and with some difficulty, but everything was in its place.
Ichirou closed the box again with gentleness while Konoko was attentively following his gestures. He shortly glanced at her and then moved his eyes to the lunch box.
"You should act more delicately, you know?" he began in a neutral tone. "You are a woman after all, not a wrestler!" he continued in a muttered voice.
"Oh really? Then you should act more manly too! A box closed by such a feeble woman like myself should be no challenge for you!" retorted Konoko.
"Feeble? You?" Just as he measured Konoko's tiny hands, he noticed the fresh cuts. They were not that shallow since he was able to see them from his position. Mixed feelings of indignation and concern prevented him from saying anything more. He still couldn't help looking at Nanako as if he told her that Konoko was completely helpless.
"Have you already decided what to cook for dinner, Noko?" Nanako interrupted the silence when they were close to finishing their meal.
"Yes! I actually have an idea!" She grinned with satisfaction. Ichirou became interested too. As Konoko jumped from the table and started to feverishly search for something in a cupboard, her friends became impatient.
"Well? What is it?"
"I want to make okonomiyaki!" she announced in a gleeful voice as she returned triumphantly at the table with a brand new hot plate. "This is a present I received from my brother and sister when I moved here," she added holding the object affectionately. "I could try it for a change!"
"But do you even know how to make okonomiyaki?" asked Ichirou in awe.
"Of course! I used to make okonomiyaki quite frequently at my parents' home when they left me to take care of my brother and sister! That's why they bought me this present!" she chuckled.
"That's a lovely idea Noko! I know exactly where we should go for the ingredients! It is not far from campus either, so we can certainly take our time!" exclaimed Nanako with enthusiasm. "Oh! I haven't eaten okonomiyaki for such a long time, I can't even remember! I look forward to it, Noko!"
"Me too!" added Ichirou with an excited look.
"Great!" replied Konoko joyfully.
The shopping trip went smoothly and the three finished early just as Nanako predicted. Watching Konoko depart on her motorcycle, the two noticed that she didn't take her usual route home.
"Hmmm... I think Konoko had other arrangements too besides shopping," remarked Nanako thoughtfully.
"What do you mean?" asked Ichirou curiously.
"I don't know! When she first offered to help me in the kitchen this morning, I felt she was hiding something. I concluded that she only needed help with the shopping and was too embarrassed to ask, but..."
"Where do you think she's going?"
"Hmmm... Let's see! Maybe she found someone at last!" replied Nanako playfully.
"Right!" reacted Ichirou in a dismissive manner. "Konoko dating! That would be something to see!"
"Like you would know!" retorted Nanako in a provoking tone.
"She definitely doesn't look like she'd be interested! Besides, who would date a tomboy like her anyway? Didn't you see what she did to my lunch box this morning?"
"Oh, that again..." reverted Nanako in a bored tone.
After class, Ichirou had work for the rest of the day. Konoko figured that it was best that she prepared the ingredients before Nanako came home, but the okonomiyaki was to be cooked only after the two of them returned from the fair and Ichirou from work. It was tastier when freshly baked. For the moment though, she had another stop to make. It was mainly because of it that she hurried with the shopping. As she approached the offices of her publishing company, her heart started to race. The previous day while visiting the fair, she found some quiet time to reflect on her recent difficulties. A new perspective was born on this occasion. She elaborated a plan and had a proposition for her editor that could have bought her some more time for the much awaited manga chapter. It wouldn't have affected the company's interest either, so she was confident that her idea could have been accepted. Well, she was confident at first, but now that the moment approached, she started to waver. As she stopped the motorcycle, her hands were sweaty and she felt dizzy. She gazed at the office building for a few seconds, trying to convince herself to proceed. Despite her mind quickly becoming crowded by questions and doubts, she chose not to pay attention to them and moved mechanically toward the building, climbing the stairs and entering.
Her editor, Mr. Keisuke Yuno, was in a meeting. However, Konoko knew that if she waited or left now, she wouldn't have come back. She knocked at the door. When the door opened, she was so nervous that she couldn't completely perceive what was happening around her. She only repeated her text just as she rehearsed it at home and on her way there. Mr. Yuno excused himself and asked Konoko to follow him in a separate room. Though it was what she had hoped for, in reality, Konoko was surprised that Mr. Yuno granted her a short-notice audience, even if only for a few minutes. As she walked behind him, her senses were still perturbed from the agitation. Her heartbeats sounded louder than their steps on the echoing floor. Mr. Yuno showed her into a room for two. When she entered, the girl had the strange feeling that she had gone deaf. He made her sign to take a seat. She couldn't move. He was ready to listen to her. She wanted to talk, but her words wouldn't come out.
"No pressure, Miss Konoko!" he said calmly.
Mr. Yuno was a forty-year-old man with high moral standards and a reserved demeanor. Because of this, when Konoko invited him to call her by her first name, he only changed "Miss Asada" with "Miss Konoko," even after they had been closely collaborating for over eight months. In his field, he was rather the analytical type, basing his suggestions and guidance on statistics and research. Though he was not very talented in the creative arts himself, he could easily identify skillful pieces of work and stimulate gifted artists. Mr. Yuno rarely smiled and he looked melancholic when he did. He usually used a poker face. Konoko needed five months of intensive face-to-face meetings with him to be able to grasp some slight nuances in his facial expressions, which could give any indication of when he was tired, annoyed, displeased or, on the contrary, excited.
When the company decided to serialize Konoko's manga, there were no available editors to work with her as they all had their hands full at that moment. Since she was very young and inexperienced, she needed more attention, so her manga could not be squeezed among a large portfolio of other manga series. It was known at that time that Mr. Yuno never worked with newbies. He had no patience with them, especially because of their lack of discipline. However, he seemed to be the only one to handle only a bunch of manga series in that critical period. Being a methodical person, with the necessary diligence, he would have been the perfect counselor for Konoko. After a lot of insistence from his superiors, Mr. Yuno agreed to have a look at her work. It was not great, but there was something about it. There was potential. Because of all that fuss over the girl's first title, he agreed to give Konoko a chance under one condition: to follow his lead absolutely. If she would have become rebellious in any way, her contract would have been terminated. In this way, he wanted to strengthen her commitment to her own work. If she didn't prove to be capable of a mature approach, she wouldn't last in the competitive environment. She was not that talented, nor was her work that remarkable to have benefited from special treatment. Mr. Yuno's superiors consented to his terms.
Though a bit air-headed and messy, Konoko proved to be more disciplined than expected, but most of all, respectful of her engagements. She was also very keen to improve, so she obeyed Mr. Yuno without fail, even when she wanted to scream and punch him in the face. She had reserved those outbursts for home, to her friends' "joy." The collaboration had proven fruitful as the popularity of her manga kept rising. Mr. Yuno knew very well how Konoko was when her emotions got out of control: the exact opposite of him. Every tiny change that happened in that soul of hers clearly showed on her face just as a flashy commercial on a TV screen. He had learned to be patient until she composed herself and spoke. On this occasion, however, her behavior made him more unsettled than usual.
"What happened, Miss Konoko? You look like you're about to confess a murder!"
"She came back, but she's in the kitchen now! I don't think she'll come here soon!"
"Let's focus, Chie! We're almost done!"
"I wouldn't have expected that we could progress so much!" remarked Chie gleefully. "Considering how observant this girl is, I feared the worst!"
"We were just lucky that she and her friends had a busy day, that's all. And you still had to go out a lot of times only to check what was happening!"
"Well, after last night…"
"Don't remind me! I thought we were done for!"
"I think this part is more difficult! It will take a while!"
"It may work faster from outside!"
"Are you kidding me? Even if it would be faster, it would still be dangerous! If she returns, she will see us!"
"We don't have much energy left! If we remain inside, we won't make it until the end of today. I wouldn't like another stressful day with this girl! Besides, you said she'll be in the kitchen for a while, didn't you? It should be enough time to wrap up this whole business."
"Technically yes, she will be busy for a while, but she seems pretty unpredictable. I'm not sure if it's safe…"
"She's messy too!" observed Saitou as he got out of the poster into Konoko's room.
Chie followed him looking around her with anxiety.
"Watercolor pencils!" exclaimed Saitou. But before he could get any closer, Chie grabbed him from his arm.
"What do you think you are doing?" she broke angrily.
"It's been a rough day Chie and I'm awfully hungry! Look how many there are. She wouldn't notice that I took a bite!"
"Wrong! She will definitely notice! She noticed the glow from the poster, didn't she?"
Saitou's face suddenly became pale and he froze.
"What's wrong, Saitou?" asked Chie fearfully in a small voice, still holding his arm. She was scared to look behind her, but she felt that the room, papers, and pencils had gotten a little bit darker as if a shadow had been cast over them.
Having remembered that she had left the spices in her bag, Konoko hurried to her room. Upon entering, she was struck by the sight of two medium-sized-doll anime characters quarreling on top of her drawings! The one with short pointy black hair and sharp-edged blue eyes had blinked!