Chapter 10:


Third and Final Time

I’m not an idiot.
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I knew from the moment I met Akane that she didn’t like being around me.Bookmark here

That didn’t mean that she hated me necessarily, but she just didn’t like me being with her friends.Bookmark here

I thought I knew why.Bookmark here

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When I first saw Akane during the opening ceremony, I thought she would be the most popular girl in school.Bookmark here

That belief only grew once I learnt of her excellent grades and physical capabilities.Bookmark here

I soon learned that she was called the Lonely Ice Princess, an all-perfect, lonely girl who spent time with no one but herself.Bookmark here

The stories and rumours about her were often positive or tragic ones, though you did hear a few malicious ones here and there. Bookmark here

I never thought I’d end up talking to her in my life, until the trip to Kyoto.Bookmark here

A few days before the trip, Hinata called to tell me she’d found the last member of her group.Bookmark here

“The Akane Yuki!”Bookmark here

She sounded excited - I, however, was baffled.Bookmark here

Why would she suddenly join us?Bookmark here

Did she want to be our friend, or did she just have no choice?Bookmark here

I wanted to ask her about it during the trip, but I’d never hear the answer to those questions.Bookmark here

I fell ill before the trip and missed out on it.Bookmark here

Hinata called me up every other day, asking if I was okay but it was mostly to brag about how great the trip was.Bookmark here

She started sending me lots of pictures and I couldn’t help but notice a small trend.Bookmark here

Whenever she talked about Akane, she sounded more enthusiastic than when she talked about Inori or Kana.Bookmark here

Then, it was the photographs she sent.Bookmark here

In almost all the group or two-shots, Hinata was beside Akane, holding her hand, with an arm around her shoulder or staring at her.Bookmark here

I chuckled.Bookmark here

“Why are you laughing?!” She screamed down the phone, but I just couldn’t help myself.Bookmark here

Did this kid not realise it herself?Bookmark here

Surely, she couldn’t be - actually, no, it’s Hinata; she could be that stupid.Bookmark here

“No, it’s nothing, nothing at all.”Bookmark here

After we hung up that evening, I went through all the photos Hinata sent me and saw that Akane seemed to be happiest when she was with Hinata.Bookmark here

…It’s confirmed.Bookmark here

Maybe, at least.Bookmark here

Perhaps.Bookmark here

There’s a possibility.Bookmark here

At the very least, Hinata likes Akane - but is the reverse also true?Bookmark here

So, when I went back to school, I decided to study them a bit.Bookmark here

Everything they did confirmed that they liked each other, or they were just very close friends.Bookmark here

Then, I saw that Hinata started blushing under Akane’s direct gaze and smiled.Bookmark here

No, there’s definitely something more here.Bookmark here

How strange - not because they’re both girls, but because I never thought Akane would act like this.Bookmark here

The girl who had always been alone and whose past everyone knew was finally interacting with others, and falling in love like a normal teenager.Bookmark here

Except, it turned out, she didn’t like me at all.Bookmark here

…No, that’s not quite right.Bookmark here

She wasn’t comfortable with me being there. Did she think I was taking time and attention away from her, or that her friends liked me more than her? Bookmark here

I don’t know what the truth is, but I could always see her downtrodden expression out of the corner of my eye, and I felt awful.Bookmark here

I’d just wanted to have lunch with a few friends; I didn’t want to ruin hers.Bookmark here

I tried my best to include her as much as possible and to talk to her, but Akane clearly didn’t want to speak to me more than she had to.Bookmark here

A few, blunt, polite words here and there, barely enough to make a conversation.Bookmark here

If Inori or the others spoke to her, she joined in more.Bookmark here

Had I done something to hurt her without realising it, or-?Bookmark here

I pondered for a moment.Bookmark here

Was it that she didn’t like me or was it that she wasn’t comfortable around guys?Bookmark here

Thinking back on the last twenty minutes of lunch together, that theory made more sense than the ‘I’d done something to upset her when I’ve barely spoken to her’ idea. Bookmark here

I’d have to watch her a bit more to know if that was the case or not.Bookmark here

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

…How on earth-?Bookmark here

The look on Akane’s face told me all I needed to know.Bookmark here

Hinata thought Akane liked me.Bookmark here

I wasn’t sure how, but it certainly explained the numerous ‘strange’ questions and comments Hinata had given me over the last few days. Bookmark here

My childhood friend can’t possibly be this stupid?Bookmark here

So, I said I liked me like a jack-ass, made up an excuse and left.Bookmark here

After that, I shot a few glances her way to see if she had any male friends at all.Bookmark here

In the end, I was convinced that she had no male friends whatsoever.Bookmark here

The guys she did talk to were just handing her printouts, asking for something they’d forgotten in their pencil case, or just saying hi and goodbye. Bookmark here

She never shared more than two words with any of them.Bookmark here

The next day, I apologised to her earlier but she seemed confused so I thought I had been wrong.Bookmark here

That was until Hinata invited me to join them for lunch; the first thing I did was look at Akane.Bookmark here

She seemed to dread the idea.Bookmark here

So, I lied and said I was eating lunch with my friends in the next class.Bookmark here

Akane looked so relieved that I felt awful - I never knew my presence could cause someone so much pain.Bookmark here

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As time went on, I was slightly frustrated with both of them.Bookmark here

They were getting along better than ever, especially after their ‘secret’ sleepover which I learnt of when I saw Akane go into Hinata’s house.Bookmark here

Their ‘skinship’ in school was definitely above that of close female friends, but they just didn’t want to take that next step.Bookmark here

Maybe they’d both convinced themselves that the other didn’t like them.Bookmark here

I once tried teasing Hinata about it, but she hastily told me she doesn’t like Akane romantically – it wasn’t very convincing stuff. Bookmark here

Then, came the worst day of my high school life - the day Ryuuji, Hayato and Aki followed me to my classroom and started pestering the girls.Bookmark here

Not only did Hayato make a complete idiot of himself, I knew that having these guys with me would just make Akane even more uncomfortable. What if she had a phobia of men or had a bad past experience with them, maybe something even traumatic?Bookmark here

I couldn’t shake those potential problems out of my mind and so I tried to get them away from her as quickly as possible.Bookmark here

It got so bad I and Aki had to drag Hayato away, and then, when I turned back to call Ryuuji to follow us, I saw it.Bookmark here

Akane ran away.Bookmark here

I had never seen a human being flee so desperately from a classroom before.Bookmark here

She might have been walking briskly, but her footsteps were heavy and dragged behind her, like she was being held back by some invisible anchor.Bookmark here

Dammit!Bookmark here

I hit my fist against the bathroom stall doors during my break.Bookmark here

I knew about her issues, but couldn’t help her!Bookmark here

Those idiots!Bookmark here

Why did they have to follow me that day?!Bookmark here

I said I’d be five minutes, so why?!Bookmark here

What made me feel even worse was when I came back to class and learnt that Akane hadn’t come back.Bookmark here

After a panicked search by our teacher, he came back fifteen minutes later, saying that Akane had been in the nurse’s office and wasn’t feeling well.Bookmark here

I felt sick.Bookmark here

I’d done this to her, intentional or not.Bookmark here

Akane, I want to be your friend and support you, but I don’t want you to suffer because of me either.Bookmark here

So, I decided I’d help her from afar.Bookmark here

I’d help Hinata’s love thrive and get her and Akane together. I’d do it from a distance, giving a few nudges and hints here and there, and then congratulate them when they started going out. Bookmark here

That was, in my mind, the best way I could atone for hurting her.Bookmark here

Kuromaru (クロまる)
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