The final match was composed of two girls, including Kirisaki, and two boys. Although Kirisaki had the best odds, this could still be anyone's game.
From the beginning of the match, it was a fierce scramble for points. Even Kirisaki couldn't manage to hold on to her lead the entire time, but she never went below second. I had treated this quiz as something trivial, but now my palms were wet with sweat as I watched the game anxiously. I felt my heart skip a beat whenever she answered a question, and then a brief relaxation of my muscles once she got the question correct. I didn't like being in such a distraught state, but the thought to leave didn't dare surface.
With the time limit fast approaching, Kirisaki once again gained a lead, but right before the timer showed 0, another participant answered a question that allowed him to tie with her. Therefore, the game moved onto to sudden death mode for a tiebreaker.
The quizmaster fixed his tie and cleared his throat before giving the last question.
"Prince Dinolus was the third wielder of the holy sword Spiky, who-"
Halfway through the question, Kirisaki pressed the buzzer. The audience wondered if she had panicked as there was no way to guess what the question was, but like Hitsuji, I believed in her.
"His best friend, Duke Rexold."
"That is," the quizmaster intentionally paused to build up suspense. And then once the tension reached the peak, he continued, "Correct! We have our winner!!!"
Cheers came not only from our group, but also from other members of the audience as well as her previous competitors. We raised our hands in celebration of her victory.
What followed was a short awards ceremony and some interaction between Kirisaki and the other participants. Her prize was a keychain of one of the dinosaur characters which was apparently really rare, and you could tell how glad she was to get it from her blissful expression. Even after coming back to us, Kirisaki would keep glancing at her keychain happily.
After that amazing show, we wondered what we should do next and during this period we heard the announcement that helped us decide.
[Explorers of the Dino Region, prepare yourselves for the Rawr-Rawr Parade will be commencing in thirty minutes.]
Even without Kirisaki hyping us up, we were eager to bear witness to this event. I had never seen a parade before outside of local festivals, so this was something that I would surely imprint onto my memory, that was what should have happened. However, reality greatly differed from my expectations.
'How the hell did it get to this?'
The first to separate from the group were Kirisaki and Hitsuji who wanted to buy souvenirs before the parade. Then, when only ten minutes were left before the start of the parade, Zakushi went off in search of the two. It wasn't like him but I didn't think much of it at the time.
When it was announced that five minutes were left before the start of the parade, the three of us gave up on waiting for the other three and tried to secure decent spots to watch the parade. Unfortunately, we were too late as the venue was already crowded and for first time, I was intimidated by how large the number of customers was. I thought this would be where we gave up, but Arisugawa was determined to push through. She and Amakawa tried to force their way through the crowd, but by the time I caught up, Amakawa was gone, leaving me alone with Arisugawa.
As I recounted how we ended up like this, my mind was in chaos. I had no idea how I should interact with her, but that was until I took a glimpse of her face. Seeing the sincere worry in her expression as she searched for Amakawa with her eyes, when it was obviously a fruitless endeavour, I immediately stomped on my own trivial concerns and made my resolve to help her.
"...We should leave. We won't be able to meet up like this," I explained.
I was more than a little scared when I imagined what her reaction would be, but she did nothing more than turn to me, lower her eyes and then nod while biting her lips. My heart fluttered at this rare air of weakness coming from her, but in that moment of carelessness, she began to be moved by the crowd.
"No!" she screamed.
If I thought about it rationally, being separated wouldn't do more than result in a bad memory, but my passion was far more powerful than logic.
I hastily stretched out my hand and grasped hers before dragging us both out of the crowd.
I didn't think it was heavy enough to call exercise, but both of us were a little out of breath after making our escape. Eventually, once we had time to catch our breaths, Arisugawa spoke to me.
"Thanks, Akishiro. But, would you mind...?"
I was confused at first, but then I noticed that our hands were still adjoined and quickly let go.
"S-sorry," I stuttered.
"It's fine, but the next time will cost you."
I wished that was a joke, but as I clenched my fist and remembered the warm and soft feeling of her hand, the lock on my wallet started to loosen.
I thought she was okay since she could say something like that, but as she looked back at the venue where the parade would soon pass through, I detected sadness in her gaze. I wasn't sure what was the reason behind it, but just the fact that it was there drove me to further action. I looked around while trying to come up with a solution, and spotted a place a short distance away above a short flight of stairs.
"Let's go there," I said while pointing at the spot.
"You want to see the parade, don't you?"
After that, I went ahead without waiting for a response. It was quite the arrogant move from me, but in my desire to fulfil her wish, I didn't notice that. Despite this, she followed me and we stood side by side as we looked down on the venue.
"It's not a bad view, but won't we be too far?" she asked.
"Don't worry, we have this."
I took out my phone, tapped on the camera icon and then zoomed in. Just like that, it could function like a telescope and give us a close view of the parade.
"Wow, good idea."
Arisugawa mimicked my actions and showed a screen which had better graphics than mine. However, more than the spectacular parade that was beginning, I was happy to see that genuine smile on her face. Looking at that smile that softened every time a float appeared, the words that I had pent up inside finally came out.
"Hinata Arisugawa, I love you."
In that very instant, her smile transformed into one I had seen many times before. With her eyes still on the parade, the 'smiling devil' was ready.
"This is quite the setting you've picked."
"No, as you've probably guessed, this is on impulse. Although in your eyes, reckless may be a better word," I said with a wry smile.
"If you already know that then why did you confess here?"
"Hmm, I'm not sure. I've always looked at how others confessed to you and tried to come up with a perfect confession in my head, but I always knew it. That was just another excuse of mine. Those guys might have failed to woo you, but, at least they had the courage to confess, that was something I always admired about them."
Not all of them were serious, none of them were worthy of her, but for taking that first step, they were all better than I was.
"Their courage? Yes, I suppose that was an admirable trait. So, what gave you the courage to confess now?"
"Ironically, it's because I gave up."
"You gave up?"
For once, Arisugawa looked away from the parade to look at me in confusion.
"That's right. Even though I definitely still like you, I gave up my hopes of dating you. In a sense, you could call this the perfect confession, because I'm only telling you my feelings without expecting a response."
"...I won't comment on whether or not this is a 'perfect' confession, but if you've already given up then what's the point of admitting your feelings? Don't you care about if this affects our club activities?"
Her tone became harsh when she mentioned the club, but compared to the pain I had been enduring this was just another prick.
"Of course I care, but I'm sure that you wouldn't quit the club because of something like this. And I don't plan on being so irresponsible either."
"Hmm, you're not wrong."
"Oh? Did I get some points for that?" I asked with a bit of frivolousness in my tone.
"Of course not, and asking about it costs you five points. Congratulations you now have negative points."
"Ouch. Can't be helped I guess."
"Didn't you give up? Why do you still care about points?"
"Because, even though I'm 99% sure you'll reject me, I can't give up that 1%."
"...You, really do like me."
"That's what I've been saying this entire time."
As I suppressed all other thoughts and emotions that would stop me from speaking, she looked back at the parade. Her expression hadn't changed, but I sensed something different in her eyes.
"You're, more outspoken than usual. Is it because you don't care what I think about your behaviour anymore."
"Ugh, I would like to think I'm usually like this, but, yes. Do you, not like it?"
I frowned and clenched my fist, but I wouldn't despair no matter what her answer was, I promised myself that.
"No, it's nice. You should be like this more often."
"...I'll try my best."
There was then a brief pause during which my heart felt squeezed by the atmosphere as I could feel the end coming near.
Arisugawa began, "You said you didn't need a response, but closure is a necessity for us to move on."
With a even tighter fist I replied, "I know."
"You lose points for your impulsive confession. No matter the reason, I can't accept that you revealed such important feelings without any preparation. However, I know that love isn't a logical emotion that can be restrained so easily. I can't say I look fondly on the fact that you've boldly admitted that you have no chance with me like you're begging for pity. Still, I acknowledge your bravery in going through with it anyway. Additionally, although I didn't mind it before, you and Kanami are a little too close from the perspective of someone you're trying to date. Nevertheless, I can understand not wanting to push away such a cute girl."
In the same position as the guys I had both scorned and admired in the past, I grew more unstable as she listed my faults despite also sprinkling me with praise. Maybe it would be better if she stuck to the insults, but maybe this was her way of ensuring that I didn't break before the end.
Either way, I had to accept her response like a man, so I straightened my back and listened until the end.
"And finally, I don't know why you're so sure I'll reject you, but I hate such assumptions. I believe you said it once yourself, I'm the one who gets to decide, not you."
That single 'h' word that came out of her mouth, made me tremble even though it wasn't aimed directly at me. Even so, I stood firm.
Once more, she turned to me with the clear eyes of a goddess, to deliver the final lines.
"Haruto Akishiro, I _________ you."
And with that, our relationship changed forever and I, was also forced to change.
"You lost faster than I thought you would. With how long you were dragging your feet I thought for sure you would hold off on confessing until the end of the year. And for you to report it directly to me too, did you realize that I was right about love?"
"I see, still firm in your decision. Well, that's fine. Once you start working my way, I'm sure we'll begin to see eye to eye. Isn't that right, my precious student?"