Once I was moved to work by Ms. Aria's message, I changed and went into her apartment to start cooking. As I decided on a menu and focused on preparing it, I was able to forget my problems, which was truly a blessing to me in my current state. With a stable faint smile, I immersed myself in this comfortable feeling.
"I'm home, darling."
When Ms. Aria entered through the front door, I didn't think much about it and played along with her joke.
"...This might be harder than I thought."
I thought I heard her say something, but I wasn't sure.
"Hmm? Did you say something?" I asked without turning around.
"No, I'm going to change."
We exchanged greetings without a problem, before she went to her room and I finished preparing dinner. I hoped that everything would be the same as usual, but once dinner started such a hope was shattered. With a tense atmosphere, we ate in silence. I wanted to fix this mood, but every time I looked at the beautiful woman in front of me and opened my mouth, my voice would be sealed. My throat was burdened by guilt and fear, so nothing was able to escape.
However, as dinner got closer to the end, I convinced myself that this was for the best. I could always tell her what I wanted to at a different time. There was no reason to force myself this time. I told myself this over and over again, but how could my worries escape her eyes?
Once she finished eating, Ms. Aria clenched her hands together and laid her elbows on the table.
"You look like you have something to tell me," she said.
It wasn't a particularly harsh or forceful tone, but the concern in her tone crushed my shabby walls. I sat up straight, but as I replied, I couldn't look into her eyes.
"Ms. Aria. I want to resign from the High School Life Assistance Club."
I didn't dare even glance at her as I waited for her reaction, and my chest tightened at her sigh. The moment I imagined her disappointed expression, I clenched my fist but nothing more.
"Why?" she asked solemnly.
"...I'm not good enough," I replied.
"Didn't you say that you weren't the one who could make that decision?"
I flinched at her question. Her words were proof that she had been there for my disgrace.
"I know, but I lost. A loser like me doesn't have the right to be a part of them."
I kept my eyes on the floor so far in this conversation, but here I gained the courage to take a glance at her face. I sensed the part of me who wished that maybe, she wouldn't be disappointed in me. Maybe she would understand my pain. Hah... what a ridiculous idea.
I saw her hand on her face, a clear sign of her exasperation. I was afraid of what her next action would be, but what she did next was completely outside of my predictions. With anger on her face and in her eyes, she spoke sternly.
"You idiot! You think you have the right to mope just because he exposed you? When he didn't even say who was the one you liked? When you didn't even confess yourself? When you weren't even rejected? Haruto, since when were you such a coward?"
If it was anyone else, even someone from the club, I wouldn't just sit here and endure this. However, in her tone and expression I sensed something familiar to an unfortunate degree. Something I had experienced before. Something that I knew not to interrupt.
'Am I being scolded?'
I was dumbstruck as I thought of my mother while looking at my teacher like a grade-schooler.
"Are you listening?"
"Then raise your head."
Before I knew it, I had lost all ability to resist and ironically, I could now look straight at her as she continued.
"I always knew that you were running from confessing your feelings, but considering your situation I turned a blind eye. I understood that you had to be careful, but at the same time I believed that you would eventually take that step. But what is this? When the going gets tough, you flee? Was that all your feelings amounted to? Was that the extent of your puppy love?"
'It's not puppy love!'
In an instant, the raging desire to refute roared inside me, but at the same time she squinted her brows, easily domesticating my frustration. Furthermore, as if she had brought it out with her glare, the guilt and shame that I had been pushing away, was reborn stronger than ever. However, I was no longer feeling guilty because I was the weak link in the club, nor was I ashamed for losing. My true mistake, was just as Ms. Aria was pointing out, it was the fact that I gave up.
"Haruto, remember what you said when you first entered this school. You said that the school system was a sham, that it was a 'desecration of the sacredness of love'. Honestly, I was surprised that something so innocent came out of a fifteen-year-old, but I admired that you stuck to your principles. But what about now? If you're already like this then there's no reason to wait until the end of the year, you'll definitely lose in your bet against the headmaster."
'I know, I know but...'
As I couldn't talk back, every line she said was like a dagger poised for my vitals that I could only endure by clenching my fists and gritting my teeth. I wanted to block out this lecture, but at the same time I wanted it to fix me. I recognized that I couldn't stay like this, so her words that ripped my faults out for me to see them clearly, were just what I needed. Like tempering an ore, I needed to get rid of my impurities.
Ms. Aria continued to strike me with valid criticism like a blacksmith. Eventually, there was a change in my mentality that allowed me to endure her scolding with a wry smile, but I still didn't know what to do. Even if I didn't give up, was there truly a path to victory? Maybe Zakushi could give me answer, but he had also joined the list of those I couldn't depend on anymore. If I couldn't solve the rest of this by myself, then there was no point.
How could I believe that I was worthy enough to be in that club, if I couldn't even clean up after myself?
I thought I was heading in the right direction so I was naturally grateful to Ms. Aria, but since she had started nitpicking things like the way I ate to the fact that I didn't wash her draws, I was hoping to be freed from this hell soon. And my call for help was soon answered.
During her lecture, my phone went off. At first she gave me a stare that I could have sworn held brutal intent, but then she gave me permission to answer it. As I saw that the name showing up on the screen was 'Naoya', I couldn't help but be reminded of what a great friend I had.
"Hey, what's up?" I answered.
"Oh, you know, I'm outside your apartment complex."
In my surprise I ended up raising my voice, which attracted Ms. Aria's interest but I couldn't afford to mind that right now.
"I sent a text that I would be coming over, didn't I? Now hurry up get the security to let me in, it's kind of chilly right now."
"What do you-"
I was about to drag out more information from Naoya, but he cut the call there. I considered calling him back, but before that I went through my messages and indeed, he had texted me about his plan for a sleepover. We had a sleepover once before so it wasn't that surprising, but it was still a little sudden.
"What's wrong?" Ms. Aria asked.
Still feeling the after-effects of having been scolded by her, I flinched at her voice before giving an explanation.
"Naoya's downstairs. He says that he's here for a sleepover."
"Hmm, then I guess you should go pick him up."
"But..." I hesitated as I looked at the table.
"It's fine. I can handle the rest by myself."
Ms. Aria then took up the plates and went to wash them. I felt sorry for leaving without finishing my job, but I couldn't deny that I was glad to have her permission. As I went to the door and put on my slippers, right as my hand reached the knob, Ms. Aria said one more thing to me.
"Haruto, though I don't want you to give up like this, you'll still be my student and employee even if you do. Okay?"
My eyes felt the threat of onion-cutting ninjas, but I was able to leave without shedding a tear.
After giving permission for Naoya to come up to my apartment, I waited for him by the elevator. When the elevator door opened, I saw him with a backpack and a fat leather bag in his hand. As soon as we saw each other, we broke into smiles and spoke.
He said, "I hope you don't plan on getting any sleep tonight."
"Did you really have to say it like that? Just get out already."