Chapter 7:

Two Steps Forward

Third and Final Time

Rei Yukimura.
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A friendly-looking handsome boy who had definitely always been popular with girls.Bookmark here

In fact, since his return, there had rarely been a moment when a girl wasn’t talking to him or looking at him. Bookmark here

Strange.Bookmark here

I felt nothing when I saw him, except unease.Bookmark here

Was it his smile, his demeanour, the way the rest of my classmates gravitated towards him, or was it because he was a he?Bookmark here

In my past life and in this one, I had not had good experiences with men. Bookmark here

In fact, I still carried those scars.Bookmark here

Thankfully, he wasn’t anywhere near me.Bookmark here

I was sat next to Hinata, Inori was across from me with Kana, and then Rei was sat at the head of the table. Bookmark here

Lunchtime had been a source of comfort for me since I made my first friends in high school, but now I wished it would end quickly and painlessly.Bookmark here

“Hey, Rei, did Hinata show you the pictures of our trip to Kyoto yet?”Bookmark here

“A few, though.” He smirked. “She sent a few where she was making a dumb face.”Bookmark here

“Hey! You said you didn’t see those before I deleted it.”Bookmark here

“I screenshotted them.”Bookmark here

“Delete them!”Bookmark here

“I sent them to Inori and Kana too.”Bookmark here

The table seemed to be having a good time, apart from me.Bookmark here

I wanted to join in, to try and get along with Rei, but I just couldn’t do it.Bookmark here

It’s not like I didn’t have times when I could’ve said more than just ‘yeah’, but I was scared to speak up.Bookmark here

Why?Bookmark here

Rei hadn’t done anything wrong.Bookmark here

He was nice.Bookmark here

He was friendly. Bookmark here

He hadn’t done anything to me.Bookmark here

So why couldn’t I even look at him?Bookmark here

I sighed quietly to myself and continued eating in almost complete silence.Bookmark here

I was embarrassed with myself.Bookmark here

Hadn’t I started moving forward?Bookmark here

Hadn’t I finally made progress in this life?Bookmark here

I had friends and I had things I looked forward to.Bookmark here

And still.Bookmark here

I retreated into my shell because it was easier.Bookmark here

No, it wasn’t just that - it was too comfortable to leave it once I’d gotten back into it.Bookmark here

Here, I was safe.Bookmark here

I didn’t embarrass myself; I didn’t have to deal with the stares or what anyone else was, and nothing could hurt me except me.Bookmark here

On some level, even now, I still thought this was the best way to live - alone.Bookmark here

“So, what did you guys all like most about Kyoto?”Bookmark here

“The hotel. It had these gorgeous hot springs, and the staff handed out ice cream to us afterwards!”Bookmark here

“What about you, Kana?”Bookmark here

“Me? Umm…I guess the Fushimi Inari Taisha. I’d always wanted to go, but my family always wants to take trips overseas rather than in Japan. Oh!” Kana surprised herself with the volume of her voice. “Sorry. I just remembered - Akane knew some really cool facts and stuff about Kyoto, and I think that might’ve been my favourite thing in the end.”Bookmark here

“Really?” I felt Rei’s gaze turn to me. “What about you, Akane?”Bookmark here

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I started to sweat.Bookmark here

Why?Bookmark here

He asked a simple question - you can answer it.Bookmark here

Spending time with Hinata, Inori and Kana. Bookmark here

Just say that and-Bookmark here

Take a deep breath, Akane. Hold it for a moment, then let it out quietly.Bookmark here

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“…Kiyomizu-dera.”Bookmark here

I put another piece of food into my mouth, preventing me from elaborating further.Bookmark here

“It’s a cool place, isn’t it?”Bookmark here

I nodded and started chewing more slowly.Bookmark here

“Akane knew a lot about Kiyomizu-dera, too, didn’t you?” Hinata asked me, lightly poking my side.Bookmark here

I swallowed and said, “Yeah…I love Kyoto, so I’ve read lots of books about it.”Bookmark here

“What sort of stuff?”Bookmark here

“…History.” Bookmark here

I took another bite and I think, that time, people caught on.Bookmark here

At least, the small forced smile on Inori’s lips said as much.Bookmark here

I couldn’t see Hinata, Rei or Kana’s reactions, but I imagine it was similar to her’s.Bookmark here

The conversation continued without me for some time, though everyone did try to occasionally include me in their talks.Bookmark here

If it was one of the girls talking to me, I could join in with no issues.Bookmark here

If it was Rei, he’d be lucky to get more than two words out of me.Bookmark here

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I’m sorry, Rei, but thank you for trying.Bookmark here

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I heard a small, mischievous chuckle beside me.Bookmark here

“Hey, Rei, do you have anyone you like right now?”Bookmark here

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Slowly, time crept forwards.Bookmark here

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Fear grasped my heart as I realised what Hinata was trying to do.Bookmark here

She still thinks-!Bookmark here

At that point, I knew I couldn’t stay here any longer.Bookmark here

I didn’t care how it looked to the others, I needed to leave before-Bookmark here

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“I do.”Bookmark here

His cheeks seemed a little red.Bookmark here

“Who?!”Bookmark here

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Then, with a small smile, he declared, without shame:Bookmark here

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“Me.”Bookmark here

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Inori almost burst out laughing, but bit down on her lip to stop herself, though they still trembled Bookmark here

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“That’s not what I meant-!”Bookmark here

Rei’s eyes popped open a little and he took his phone out of his pocket. After unlocking it, he sighed a little and started packing his things away.Bookmark here

“Sorry. Gotta go.”Bookmark here

“Hey, wai-!”Bookmark here

“Later.”Bookmark here

Just like that, our lunchtime came to an end.Bookmark here

Or so I thought it had.Bookmark here

“That’s not like Rei.”Bookmark here

“What isn’t?” Kana asked.Bookmark here

“Rei always has his volume on loud, so there’s no-”Bookmark here

“Hinata.”Bookmark here

Apparently, the girls had figured out something and decided to keep quiet. All I could see was Inori nudging her head a little towards me, perhaps to get Hinata to stop talking.Bookmark here

Regardless, it didn’t bother me.Bookmark here

We all finished our meals and spent the time awkwardly in silence.Bookmark here

For once, I did not feel a warm, fluffy feeling after lunchtime.Bookmark here

I don’t know what it had been replaced with, but it wasn’t a pleasant emotion.Bookmark here

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Did Rei leave out of consideration for me?Bookmark here

Could he tell I was uncomfortable with him being there, or did I make him feel that way to the point where he had to leave?Bookmark here

Maybe he had been embarrassed that his crush had asked him such things point blank?Bookmark here

Those sorts of thoughts lingered in my mind until the very end of the day.Bookmark here

If I couldn’t even talk to Rei, would it ever be possible for me to have any male friends ever?Bookmark here

Or was it because of the misunderstandings with Hinata that made me incapable of talking to him?Bookmark here

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“Hey, Akane.”Bookmark here

After putting my indoor shoes back in their locker, I was approached by Hinata, carrying a stack of papers a teacher had asked her to carry.Bookmark here

“What?”Bookmark here

“Did I…say something I shouldn’t have…earlier?”Bookmark here

“You did.”Bookmark here

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Oh.Bookmark here

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No.Bookmark here

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Akane, why?Bookmark here

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Look at her face.Bookmark here

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The pain.Bookmark here

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You were too blunt.Bookmark here

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I don’t know what sort of face I had made, but I knew I couldn’t stay here any longer.Bookmark here

So, I fled.Bookmark here

I walked as fast as I could away from the pleading Hinata and went straight home, locking myself in my bedroom.Bookmark here

I’m such an idiot.Bookmark here

Why do I keep doing stupid things like this?Bookmark here

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I cried into my pillow for ten minutes before the tears dried out.Bookmark here

I redid my makeup, had a peaceful dinner with my parents, relaxed in the bath for half an hour, and then spent the rest of the evening doing homework and nothing else.Bookmark here

Then, my phone began to vibrate.Bookmark here

“Hinata.”Bookmark here

I was scared to answer, but I knew from my past lives what would happen if I didn’t.Bookmark here

So, I picked up and waited for her to talk first.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry.”Bookmark here

“…I’m sorry too.”Bookmark here

“Why are you-?”Bookmark here

“Because.” I swallowed hard. “I said something mean to you. I’m sorry, I didn’t-”Bookmark here

“I know.”Bookmark here

“How?”Bookmark here

“Because.” Hinata laughed beautifully. “I know you have trouble with these sorts of things. You told me, remember?”Bookmark here

“…Yeah.”Bookmark here

“I crossed a line at lunch I shouldn’t have, and I know that, but I thought I could help you guys get-”Bookmark here

“Hinata. I do not like Rei that way - I swear.”Bookmark here

“…Really?”Bookmark here

“Really.”Bookmark here

A few moments of silence passed before Hinata let out a massive sigh and audibly collapsed onto her bed.Bookmark here

“Oh my God, I’m such an idiot! I’m so sorry, Akane! I just thought-!”Bookmark here

I couldn’t help but laugh at her embarrassed voice.Bookmark here

“Hey!”Bookmark here

“Sorry, but I knew that’s what you thought.”Bookmark here

“…I’m sorry.”Bookmark here

“It’s fine, Hinata. Just…believe me the next time I say it.”Bookmark here

“I will! No matter who it is, unless you say you like them, I won’t believe it!”Bookmark here

“Good.”Bookmark here

We spent the next twenty minutes chatting pleasantly on the phone about our day, the trip to Kyoto and more. When I told her that my favourite thing about the trip was getting to know her and the girls, she seemed really embarrassed and thanked me in a soft voice.Bookmark here

I’d never realised it before, but I’d never had such a long phone conversation before that wasn’t for a meeting at work.Bookmark here

I didn’t expect it to be this fun, this heart-warming, this peaceful.Bookmark here

Maybe it was special because it was Hinata.Bookmark here

“Hey, Akane.”Bookmark here

“Hmm?”Bookmark here

“I still feel bad about today, and-”Bookmark here

“Don’t be.”Bookmark here

“I know I shouldn’t, and you’ve already forgiven me, but I still want to make it up to you somehow. Is there any way I can?”Bookmark here

For once, I did not have to think about my answer.Bookmark here

“…Can I sleepover at your house?”Bookmark here

“S-sure. Oh, I can invite Kana and-”Bookmark here

“Just…just the two of us.”Bookmark here

“A-ah, u-u-um…s-s-sure.”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.