They Bloom in March
When lunchtime rolls around, I meet up with Katsuragi. She tells me of a quiet and secluded eating spot away from unwanted attention. Given her reputation among the girls in our class, she probably doesn't want me to suffer from being seen with her.
Not that I'd mind, given my situation.
Following her, I ascend the staircases past the third-year classrooms and find a quiet fort of dusty chairs and tables on the stair landing. Behind these towers of unused furniture is a locked door that opens into the rooftop, and a rabbit head keychain hanging off the door handle.
"Oh, the rabbit was there when I found this place," she notices my gaze and sits down. "I figured a janitor put it there or something..."
"O-oh, I thought it was yours," I join her with my lunchbox in hand.
"Cutesy things like that don't really fit my image... you know..."
A wistful look flashes across her face as she imparts those words to me. A look so brief you'd miss it if you blinked. Immediately, a lopsided smile takes its place and she claps her hands.
"So, what brought this on? Why invite me all of a sudden?" she crosses her legs and assumes a straight posture. "I've never seen you talk to others before, Amane-san."
"A-ah, I don't have a particular reason for calling you here... I just felt like eating with someone, is all..."
"And the affair with your sister?" Katsuragi confusedly looks at me.
"Y-yeah, and that too! It nearly slipped my mind! Two heads are better than one right? Especially when it comes to food... haha..! She's been trying out new recipes to take over as house cook, so I want to give her proper feedback as her sister... I suppose."
"Huh... a doting older sister. I didn't expect that from you..."
"Uh... what did you expect from me..?"
"A more... gloomy side I guess?"
I take a second to self-reflect before shaking my head.
"A-anyways, back to the task at hand," as I open my lunchbox, the aroma of hamburger steak pervades the air.
"Ooh..! That looks good!"
"I was thinking of giving you half of the food. That way you get the full experience... right..?"
"Half of the..." she flinches.
"O-of course, you don't have to if you don't want to..! I just wanted... a second opinion..."
Katsuragi quietly stares at me with an inscrutable expression. And an uncomfortable atmosphere replaces the tranquil nature of this sequestered refuge―one that mercilessly suffocates me like a plastic bag.
She then rivets her sights on the assortment of sides accompanying the steak slab that fills the container resting on my lap.
"Say... Amane-san..." she solemnly mouths. "You're doing this out of pity, aren't you?
"E-eh..?" My heart drops and I nearly drop my lunchbox. "What do you mean?"
"You saw me fishing my lunchbox out of the fountain... didn't you?"
"You don't have to lie to me... I already know."
Her brutal honesty conjures a lump in my throat, and I am unable to retaliate. And it is at this moment I wonder to myself: what was I trying to accomplish?
Time powers or not, my inability to socialize properly has never once changed. I have no friends; I have zero experience in talking with people, let alone befriending them; and I'm in no position to involve myself in matters that don't concern me.
So what possessed me to throw myself out there and help her? Was it an egotistical sense of justice? Even if the world will reset, it doesn't make my actions any less self-serving.
Coming to terms with that, I stay silent and drown in my shame.
"Of course, that's the reason you approach me right..? Why else would anyone be so nice to someone like me..?" her self-defeating sentiment pierces my soul.
"T-that's not true..!" I fruitlessly protest.
She shakes her head and stands up. "Let's end it here, Amane-san. I know they say beggars can't be choosers but... I don't want us to have this kind of relationship."
"You don't... get it―!"
"Sorry, Amane-san. I can't let myself be your damsel in distress... So, let's forget this ever happened, okay? It's better if you don't get yourself involved with me for such a silly reason."
And it takes every fiber of my body not to cry. Because eventually, she will forget. Once this time loop starts over again, everyone will forget. Truthfully, there's no point in even doing this.
Her palpable sadness seeps through the cracks in my head and mixes with mine. A multitude of emotions well up within me and befuddle my very being.
My burning desire for the day to restart intensifies with each passing second.
But it did not. The world was not so forgiving.
Thus, I decide to pay her in kind. Just as Katsuragi was candid to me, I feel as though I should be forthcoming with her as well.
My inhibition fades away and I clear my throat, as the girl is about to leave.
"H-hey Katsuragi-san..!" I call out to her. "There's another reason I reached out to you back there..."
"Hm..?" she turns to face me, curious.
I take a deep breath and set my lunchbox aside. Quickly, I rise to my feet and spill the beans.
"So... uh... I-I've..." my voice falters as I register the ridiculousness of what I'm about to say. "Y-you see... for a long time..."
"For a long time..?"
"I-I've never had any friends!"
Foolishly, I blurt out the wrong thing.
Sure, I was being honest and my words came from the heart, but that wasn't exactly what I was trying to get out. Internally I scream to myself, "Idiot! I'm such an idiot!"
"No friends?" Katsuragi repeats, slightly taken aback.
"T-that's not what I meant to say..!" I hastily back peddle, to no avail. "I mean, it's true but... that's beside the point!"
"Uh-huh..." she scratches her head.
Seeing as it wasn't getting across to her, I settle on emptying my thoughts and letting my feelings do the talking.
That goes about as well as you'd expect.
"O-okay so I'm, uh, living through a time loop, right? And this has been going on for about a month now... well technically two months... this is my third month and the month always resets on the 31st... so since I have to live through the same 31 days over and over again, I was thinking I might as well do something with this endless time I have right? It may sound like something out of a movie but it's honest to God something I've been dealing with for a good while... and considering what happens in the future I thought I could―!"
Suddenly, Katsuragi cracks a smile and bursts into laughter, leaving me a flustered mess. It's the first time I've ever seen her make that face.
She holds her stomach and lets out a hearty guffaw that echoes into the hallway below.
"Ahaha..!" she struggles to regain her composure, and tears roll down her cheeks. "What the heck are you even on about?"
"W-wha..? No, I'm serious..!" I assure her. "The month has been on a constant repeat, so I took this chance to―"
"I guess I had you all wrong. We're in the same friendless boat... huh..?"
I drop to my knees and let out a sigh of despair. "You're kinda misunderstanding the situation, but if it works out then I suppose it's fine..."
"Haha... you're surprisingly cute when you aren't frowning all the time, Amane-san."
I look up at the girl and chortle. "That should be my line, Katsuragi-san."
"You're a lot more beautiful when you smile like this."
Katsuragi blushes and averts her gaze. "F-flattery won't work on me, you know?"
I chuckle and glance at the transom window above the rooftop exit. The afternoon sun poking through the scratched glass is reminiscent of the light at the end of this short tunnel. And upon defusing this souring interaction, I realize just how awkward the two of us really are.
And I can't tell whether the glow in this small space is from the outside, or the girl in front of me bearing a radiant grin.
Interrupting my contemplation, however, is a loud grumbling noise coming from said girl's stomach.
"Say, Amane-san?" Katsuragi fidgets on the edge of the staircase, redder than an apple. "What say we rate your sister's cooking?"
With that, my fellowship with Shiina Katsuragi begins.