Chapter 7:

Curiosity Killed The Cat

My Crush Is A Nekomata

Ryoko’s POVBookmark here

The chirping of cicadas and the chattering of people reached my ears as I waited outside the station for Maneki. It was a bright Saturday afternoon and the sun was high in the sky. The streets were busy and there were crowds of people taking over the sidewalks. I leaned against the wall of the station, standing a few feet away from the entrance, as I looked down at my phone. It read 1:30 PM.Bookmark here

She’s running a little late . . .Bookmark here

“Hey, Ryoko!” I looked up to see the girl that I was just thinking about approaching me. I was immediately taken aback by how cute she looked.Bookmark here

Today, a pink ribbon was wrapped around her hidden ears instead of the usual blue one and her short, white dress swayed around her legs with every step she took. The hem and neckline of it were both bordered with lace and she wore a thin, pink cardigan over it. Even her hair appeared to be shinier than usual and her feet were covered by flats that matched the cardigan. At this point, I had never seen Maneki in anything other than her school uniform, so this really threw me through a loop. I was still staring at her, taking it all in, when she finally made it over to me.Bookmark here

“Sorry I’m late.” She played with her hair a little, a look of embarrassment on her face. Suddenly feeling self-conscious from wearing a basic short-sleeved button-up and regular pants, I scratched the back of my neck and smiled awkwardly.Bookmark here

“It’s all right, I haven’t been waiting long. You look really cute.”Bookmark here

“Oh, thank you,” Maneki replied quietly. I could see that she was blushing a little.Bookmark here

“So, which way is the garden?”Bookmark here

“Just follow me.” Maneki turned and began to lead me down the sidewalk. We began to make our way through one of the crowds when I realized that I couldn’t see her anymore. I was tall enough to where I wouldn’t get lost on my own, but Maneki was short so it was a challenge to see her when she was surrounded by other people. When I spotted her again, I reached out and grabbed her sleeve without thinking.Bookmark here

“There you are.” She looked back confused. Her eyes drifted down to my hand, which was still gripping her sleeve.Bookmark here

“Oh, did you get lost?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I lost you, so kinda,” I answered. “Sorry, I’ll let go now.”Bookmark here

“No, it’s fine,” she chimed. “If that makes it easier for us to stick together, go ahead.”Bookmark here

“O-okay.” I continued to hold onto her sleeve as we made our way through the crowd, my face and ears burning along the way. I hoped that she wouldn’t look back to see me as I tried my best to calm down. Before long, we made it to the entrance to the garden that Maneki had talked about. A stone path led through a large wooden gate, which was left open for the public. People strolled by and walked in as Maneki and I stopped at the edge of the road. By this point, I had let go of her sleeve. I was looking around at all of the trees surrounding us when Maneki spoke again.Bookmark here

“Ready to go in? It should be less crowded.”Bookmark here

“Sure.” We walked side-by-side as we strolled through the gate, entering the garden. I was immediately met with the sight of hundreds of hydrangea bushes, all of them blooming in blue, pink, and purple. We wandered down the path, taking in the sights and the tranquility of the garden. I was even taking a few pictures of the flowers when Maneki grabbed onto my arm.Bookmark here

“Hey, look over there!” I followed where her finger was pointing with my eyes and saw a little stand further down the path. “We should go get some souvenirs!”Bookmark here

“Okay.” I nodded in agreement and Maneki let go of my arm. We made our way over to the stand and found that everything there was hydrangea-themed. I was looking at a paper fan with a hydrangea pattern on it when something caught Maneki’s eye.Bookmark here

“These are really pretty,” she said quietly, picking up a small jar. It was tiny, about the size of the tip of my finger past the last knuckle, and inside it there were small flowers from the hydrangeas. The one that she picked up had pink flowers, but there were also blue and purple ones as well. “Look, it even has some straps on the cork to tie them to our school bags.”Bookmark here

“You’re right.” I picked up a blue one and looked at it. I then saw the sign that listed the price. I let the tiny jar rest in my palm. “Do you want one? I can buy it for you.”Bookmark here

“Really? Are you sure?” I nodded and she handed me the pink one that she was holding. “Thank you.” Her voice was quiet and the only other way that I could describe it was cute. She wandered over to the other side of the path as I paid for them.Bookmark here

“I have an idea,” she said. “Give me the blue one.”Bookmark here

“Why?”Bookmark here

“They can be charms for us,” she explained. “You get the pink one and I get the blue one so we have something from each other.”Bookmark here

“So, like a friendship thing?” I asked, passing her the blue one. She held it gently in her hand and smiled, seemingly to herself.Bookmark here

“Something like that.” I tucked the pink one into my pocket and Maneki put the blue one in the pocket of her cardigan. We were about to start walking again when something wet hit my forehead. Suddenly, rain began pouring down from the gaps in the canopy of trees above.Bookmark here

“But it wasn’t even cloudy earlier!” I shouted, exasperated.Bookmark here

“Do you have an umbrella?” I looked over to see that the lady that was running the stand was talking to us. I raised an eyebrow at her.Bookmark here

Does it look like we have one?Bookmark here

“No,” Maneki answered.Bookmark here

“Here, take this.” The lady held out a brand-new umbrella, which of course had a hydrangea pattern on it.Bookmark here

“Thank you.” I took it from her with my right hand and opened it as quickly as I could. I held it over Maneki and me. We thanked the woman again and began heading back toward the gate. I noticed from the corner of my eye that Maneki was looking down at the ground while we walked.Bookmark here

“Are you upset? We can go somewhere else for a bit, if you want,” I offered. She lifted her head at the sound of my voice before shaking it.Bookmark here

“It’s not that.” She gripped the hem of her cardigan, just like how she usually did with her skirt when she was nervous. “I wanted to tell you something.” She stopped walking and I did the same to make sure that she wouldn’t get rained on. We were about halfway to the gate and there was no one else in sight. She looked up at me with determination on her face despite her cheeks being bright red.Bookmark here

“Ryoko, I . . . I really like you.”Bookmark here

My heart skipped a beat. There was no way that this was real.Bookmark here

“Like friends?” I asked, dumbfounded.Bookmark here

“I don’t think so,” the shorter girl admitted. “I’ve never felt this way before. I think it's more than that.”Bookmark here

What is it then? I tilted my head as I stared at her. She looked down again.Bookmark here

“So, are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” She nodded, confirming my greatest fear and my deepest desire at the same time. My mind went blank for a moment. How was this really happening? I felt my arm lower the umbrella I was holding as I shook my head.Bookmark here

“Maneki, I need to think about this.”Bookmark here

“Is it because we’re both girls?” She was looking at me again and I could almost see the hope in her eyes.Bookmark here

“No, that isn’t an issue. I just need to think this through.”Bookmark here

“Will you have an answer for me soon?”Bookmark here

“Yes, I promise.” I handed her the umbrella and smiled at her warmly as I got pelted with not-so-warm rain. “Will you be okay heading home alone?”Bookmark here

Maneki, clearly confused, nodded.Bookmark here

“Okay, I’m going to head home. Text me when you get back, okay?” Maneki nodded again silently and I turned and walked away, still trying to process what had just happened.Bookmark here

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A few days passed and I avoided the topic with Maneki, but she didn’t really push it either. In all honesty, I had no clue what to do. It was true that I still liked Maneki . . . Okay, it was more than “liking,” but I never expected to get that far. I couldn’t even talk to her a few months ago and now I knew her biggest secret and somehow won her affection. My mind was boggled, to say the least. But even in my amazement, one ugly thought still managed to burrow through my brain to taunt me from the back of my mind.Bookmark here

She deserves better. You weren’t a good girlfriend before, what makes you think it’ll be different with her?Bookmark here

This thought had popped up in my head while I was eating lunch with Maneki and Harumi the following Tuesday, the last one before summer break. It was true that I had been in a relationship before, but it had ended horribly and I definitely didn’t want that sort of situation to happen to Maneki and me. I must have been thinking about it too hard because Maneki grabbed my shoulder and shook me a little.Bookmark here

“Ryoko, are you okay? You look mad.”Bookmark here

I realized that my shoulders were tense and that my brows were furrowed while I glared at the ground. I looked at Maneki and saw a look of concern spread across her face. I shook my head and tried my best to put on a smile.Bookmark here

“I’m all right, just lost in thought.”Bookmark here

“Well, listen up, ’cause we’re planning a trip!” Harumi cheered.Bookmark here

“A trip?” Maneki sounded just as confused as I was.Bookmark here

“Yeah, for us to hang out over summer break. We can go on a day trip or something.” Maneki shifted a little bit in her spot, scooching away from me slightly. She looked down at her hands, which were folded in her lap.Bookmark here

“I’m not sure if I can go. My family doesn’t have a lot of money for things like that.”Bookmark here

“I’ll pay for you,” I offered. The blonde looked at me with surprise, then her cheeks began to redden.Bookmark here

“Are you sure?” I nodded.Bookmark here

“Yeah, I have plenty saved up from work. I can cover you if we don’t go too far.”Bookmark here

“Great!” Harumi nearly shouted. “I was thinking that maybe we can go to Omihachiman.”Bookmark here

“Omihachiman?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I went there last summer with my parents. It was a merchant town way back when and it was preserved. It also has a huge lake and some boat tours going through the canals. We can get there by train, if you guys would like.”Bookmark here

“Sounds good to me,” I replied. Maneki, who was still looking at me, nodded in agreement and smiled. It was decided that we were going to Omihachiman.Bookmark here

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That night, Harumi decided to put Maneki and me into a group chat with her to discuss the trip. It was after dinner and I was lying in bed, reading a book that my boss let me borrow, when I got the first text.Bookmark here

Harumi: Hey, I wanted to get the itinerary started. Is there anything that you guys want to do?Bookmark here

“Harumi is never this organized,” I mumbled to myself. I slipped a bookmark between the page I was on and the next one and closed the book, setting it aside before quickly sending a text back.Bookmark here

Ryoko: What is there to do? You mentioned boat rides . . .Bookmark here

It didn’t take long for me to get a reply.Bookmark here

Harumi: There’s a lot more to do. We can check out Lake Biwa and probably go swimming too!Bookmark here

That was when my mind conjured up the image of Maneki in a swimsuit, her ears and tail exposed. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the thought when my phone pinged again. When I looked at the screen, the first thing I saw was Maneki’s name.Bookmark here

Maneki: Actually, I don’t really like swimming. I wouldn’t mind checking out the lake, though.Bookmark here

Oh, right. She’s a cat.Bookmark here

I let out a sigh and looked at the time displayed in the corner of my screen. It was getting late.Bookmark here

Ryoko: I’m heading to bed. Let’s talk about this more in the morning.Bookmark here

Harumi: Okay~Bookmark here

I plugged the charger into my phone and placed it on the headboard of my bed. I got up, shut off the light, and was about to snuggle up under the covers when my phone buzzed and the screen lit up.Bookmark here

Maneki: Goodnight. See you tomorrow!Bookmark here

I smiled and set my phone back down. I crawled into bed and began to think about Maneki as I drifted off to sleep.Bookmark here

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The following Saturday, the day after we got out of school on summer break, I found myself waiting at the same train station that Maneki and I had met up at the weekend prior. I leaned against the wall in the same spot and everything looked just about the same as it did when Maneki and I went to the garden.Bookmark here

Talk about deja-vu, I thought as I turned on my phone screen. It lit up after I pressed the power button and the time was displayed as 1:30 PM on the lockscreen. Okay, that’s really weird, now I’m seriously getting deja-vu.Bookmark here

“Hey!” I looked up, just like I had before, but this time I saw Harumi instead of Maneki. I noticed that she was wearing a yellow off-shoulder top that tied in the front with blue shorts and black sandals. Her hair was also styled in pigtails and her makeup was done. I hadn’t seen her dressed like this since the last time we hung out outside of school.Bookmark here

How long ago was that again?Bookmark here

“Have you heard anything from Maneki yet?” she asked as she walked up to me. I gave up on trying to count the months and checked my phone again. There were no new notifications.Bookmark here

“No, not yet. We’re going to miss the train if she doesn’t get here soon.”Bookmark here

“Sorry I’m late!” We both looked over to see Maneki running toward us. This time, she was wearing a pink skirt with matching sneakers and a white shirt. She also wore the same pink bow that she had worn to the garden. Her ponytail swayed as she ran up to us and she also had her hair pinned in a way that would hide where her human ears would be, if she had any. When she got closer, Harumi whistled.Bookmark here

“Looking adorable, Maneki,” she teased, looking her up and down. Maneki scratched the back of her neck and laughed.Bookmark here

“You think so? My brother picked this out.”Bookmark here

“Your older one?” She nodded. I smiled.Bookmark here

They must have made up then. I opened my mouth to say something else, but I was cut off by the ringing of my phone’s alarm.Bookmark here

“That’s our cue,” I told them, silencing my phone. I tucked it into my pocket and we headed inside the station, Harumi cheering and telling us how much she couldn’t wait to show us Omihachiman.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.