Chapter 3:

The Color of Bonds

They Bloom in March


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Stepping outside, I'm greeted by the late afternoon sky and the last batch of high schoolers scrambling to get out and make the most of their weekend.

It's a sight unfamiliar to me as I vividly recall the setting sun tinting the empty streets a vibrant warm orange. And the emotion I felt in those distant presents was fear and trepidation as I hastily endeavored to make my way home before dark.

"The timeline's changed..." I mutter to myself as I survey the new surroundings.

Katsuragi jogs up behind me. "Did you say something?"

"O-oh, nothing really," I shake my head. "Thanks for helping out with cleaning duty."

"It was the least I could do to pay you back for the food."

"Well... you should be thanking my sister for putting it together. I'm merely a messenger."

"Hey, you had a hand in cooking it right? You shouldn't downplay your contributions, you know?" she puffs her chest out, mimicking our homeroom teacher.

"Ahaha..! You almost nailed it!"

We saunter side-by-side up the hill toward the town's residential district.

I didn't think we'd end up walking home together, but I suppose Lady Luck has other plans for me. The realization hits me as my ears pick up laughter from a nearby group of students across the street from us.

"I'm not alone this time... huh..." I think to myself as a smile creeps onto my face.

Katsuragi intently stares at me as I'm lost in thought.

"Must be nice being so thin..." she sighs.

"E-eh?" startled by her comment, I snap out of my daze. "Where'd that come from?"

She stops dead in her tracks and beckons me. Unsure of where she's going with this, I reluctantly comply and approach her. She then grabs my hand and presses it against her abdomen.

"See what I mean?"

"I... don't..?"

"I'm pretty chubby aren't I? Gross-looking like a blob..."

I squeeze her pudgy abdomen and do a double-take.

Taking a brief gander at her physique, I find nothing amiss. The girl wearing her brunette hair in a modest bob is far from what I would call overweight.

And I take a step back and scratch my cheek, as passersby stare at our strange display.

"You look perfectly healthy to me..." I answer with the utmost sincerity. "If anything, I'm the weird one here. I'm skinny, my complexion's pasty, I lack... proper assets..." I glance at Katsuragi's chest. "You should be more confident in how you look, Katsuragi-san."

The girl pauses and chortles. "Heh, you sound exactly like Mr. Kizawa."

She strolls on ahead clutching her schoolbag with a placid mien as the horizon begins swallowing the sun. I scuttle over and catch up, still bewildered by her words.

"Sorry about that, Amane-san..." she turns to me. "You must think I'm weird for springing that on you, huh..."

"Well, yeah..." I breathily titter. "But if that's a part of who you are, then I'll accept any weirdness you may have in store for me."

"Any weirdness..?"

"Mm. After all, that's what friends are for right?"

Katsuragi slows down again. Only this time, I register why.

My cheeks redden as the evening sky does, and I cringe as my thoughtless declaration of friendship echoes in my ears.

"I-If you don't see us that way, then that's fine too..!" I quickly backpedal. "F-friend can mean someone you're friendly with, you know?! I'm not pushing you into a relationship or anything..!"

"Ahahaha..!" Katsuragi laughs. "You're a real hoot sometimes, Amane-san. Guess we're both weirdos in our own ways, huh?"

"I'm... not that much of a weirdo, am I..?"

"You sure are..." she replies without missing a beat. "Why else would you willingly befriend someone like me?"

Before I can say anything, we arrive at the entrance to a large complex. The nameplate by the gate reads Hitohira Hall. Squinting through the bar fences that encircle the buildings within, I spot several students roaming inside.

"Hm? You aren't going inside?" Katsuragi opens the gate for me and waits.

"A-ah, my house is in Ishimura... further up the hill," I clear up the misconception.

"Wait, you're a local?!"

"Not exactly... I moved in with my grandparents here six years ago. They're the locals."

"H-huh... you're pretty lucky to have gotten into our academy and have your home so nearby. It's a pain getting used to dorm life."

"I usually come into class later in spite of that though..."

We stand around in silence, waiting for each other to pick up the conversation. Our inability to end our interaction leads to a full minute of wordless eye contact.

"U-um, Amane-san," Katsuragi speaks up.

"Y-yes?!" I swiftly respond.

"Do you wanna..." she digs into her bag and pulls out her flip phone, "exchange phone numbers?"

"S-sure..!" I bring mine out as well.

I fumble my way through the contact exchange as I've never really used the infrared transmitter. The only number I have is Michiko's and even then I added it manually.

I'm not what you'd call tech savvy I suppose...

We simper to ourselves as our phones chime in unison. Seeing Katsuragi's name pop up on the screen of my device fills me with an indescribable happiness.

And as our shadows blend in with the darkening road, the girl looks up at me and grins.

"Well then, I'll see you tomorrow, Amane-san."

"Mm. Good night, Katsuragi-san."

And we go our separate ways as twilight draws closer.

Without knowing it, I hurry back home with a spring in my step. The lingering joy keeps me going, and when I reach the doorway of my poky little residence, I wipe the sweat off my brow and gleefully announce my return.

"I'm back!"

"Big Sis!" Michiko rushes out of the kitchen donning an apron and holding a smoking hot ladle. "What took you so long?!"

"Oh... that's familiar..."

"Huh? What on earth are you talking about? You were supposed to help me out with dinner, remember?"

"Sorry, sorry... I had cleaning duty today. I'll make it up to you by doing the dishes!"

"Jeez... I know high schoolers have it tough and all, but I can't exactly handle all the housework by myself you know?" she groans at me, arms akimbo. "Oh, by the way, can you guess what I'm making tonight?"

"Huh..."

My sister haughtily smirks. "I might be able to forgive you if you figure it out. Well, it might be impossible since you probably won't believe it―"

"Paella, right?"

Her face goes white.

"H-how did you―?"

"I could smell it from outside," I lie as easily as I breathe. "Also, don't go spending our funds on lavish meals. We'll be in the red if we eat like this every day you know?"

"You don't have to tell me..! I was just thinking about expanding my arsenal of recipes after the hamburger steak! It's a one-time thing, I promise!"

As she says that, billows of black smoke spiral out of the kitchen. And the smell of burnt rice spreads through the house.

Yuchiko shambles out of the living room. The listless youngest sister wipes the line of drool hanging off her chin and yawns.

"Is it time for fireworks already..?" she sleepily mutters, drowsy from her afternoon nap.

I hold my head and heave out a sigh. "And don't go burning our house down..."

"C-crap!" Michiko darts for the unattended stove. "The paella's gone black!"

Our grandfather shuffles down the stairs and joins me and Yuchiko as we stand outside the kitchen. Sniffing the air, he pins his gaze on the room that hosts our grandmother's shrine.

"Are we lighting Kumiko's altar already?"

"No, granddad... that's the stench of tonight's dinner."

"My, my... I'm not in a hurry to reunite with your grandmother, you know?"

I chuckle at his snappy remark. He may be getting on in years, but his wit's still intact.

Rubbing her eyes, Yuchiko walks up to me. "Did something good happen today, Big Sis?"

"Hm? What do you mean?"

"You seem smilier now... compared to before..."

Touching my lips, I feel a curve forming. I've unknowingly been smiling since my encounter with Katsuragi. Confirming my sister's astute observation, I complete my smile and the beam widens.

"Believe it or not, I made a friend today, Yuchiko."

"Ooooh..!" her genuine enthusiasm is characteristically low-energy. "That's amazing, Big Sis..."

"I know right?"

"I always struggle to stay awake when someone talks to me. So being able to sit through a conversation long enough that they actually want to become friends with you... Are you a genius or something?!"

"Yuchiko... that's not the amazing part, you know..? Also, don't fall asleep when someone's talking to you. You'll make them cry."

Later that night, as barely edible paella chunks sit in my stomach, I lay in my bed and open my phone in the dark. My face lights up, and I stare at the screen displaying Katsuragi's number.

"Tomorrow a new day starts..." I take a deep breath. "Maybe this nightmare can finally end..."

I close my phone, and my eyes along with it, and drift off into a slumber that lasts but a few hours.

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They Bloom in March


Bonbocchi
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