Third and Final Time
I’m not an idiot.
I knew from the moment I met Akane that she didn’t like being around me.
That didn’t mean that she hated me necessarily, but she just didn’t like me being with her friends.
I thought I knew why.
When I first saw Akane during the opening ceremony, I thought she'd be the most popular girl in school.
That belief only grew once I learnt of her excellent grades and physical capabilities.
I soon learned that she was called the Lonely Ice Princess, an all-perfect, lonely girl who spent time with no one but herself.
The stories and rumours about her were often positive or tragic ones, though you did hear a few malicious ones here and there.
I never thought I’d end up talking to her in my life, until the trip to Kyoto.
A few days before the trip, Hinata called to tell me she’d found the last member of her group.
“The Akane Yuki!”
She sounded excited - I, however, was baffled.
Why would she suddenly join us?
Did she want to be our friend, or did she just have no choice?
I wanted to ask her about it during the trip, but I’d never hear the answer to those questions.
I fell ill before the trip and missed out on it.
Hinata called me up every other day, asking if I was okay but it was mostly to brag about how great the trip was.
She started sending me lots of pictures and I couldn’t help but notice a small trend.
Whenever she talked about Akane, she sounded more enthusiastic than when she talked about Inori or Kana.
Then, it was the photographs she sent.
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.
“Why are you laughing?!” She screamed down the phone, but I just couldn’t help myself.
Did this kid not realise it herself?
Surely, she couldn’t be - actually, no, it’s Hinata; she could be that stupid.
“No, it’s nothing, nothing at all.”
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.
Maybe, at least.
There’s a possibility.
At the very least, Hinata likes Akane - but is the reverse also true?
So, when I went back to school, I decided to study them a bit.
Everything they did confirmed that they liked each other, or they were just very close friends.
Then, I saw that Hinata started blushing under Akane’s direct gaze and smiled.
No, there’s definitely something more here.
How strange - not because they’re both girls, but because I never thought Akane would act like this.
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.
Except, it turned out, she didn’t like me at all.
…No, that’s not quite right.
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?
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.
I’d just wanted to have lunch with a few friends; I didn’t want to ruin hers.
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.
A few, blunt, polite words here and there, barely enough to make a conversation.
If Inori or the others spoke to her, she joined in more.
Had I done something to hurt her without realising it, or-?
I pondered for a moment.
Was it that she didn’t like me or was it that she wasn’t comfortable around guys?
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.
I’d have to watch her a bit more to know if that was the case or not.
“Hey, Rei, do you have anyone you like right now?”
…How on earth-?
The look on Akane’s face told me all I needed to know.
Hinata thought Akane liked me.
I wasn’t sure how, but it certainly explained the numerous ‘strange’ questions and comments Hinata had given me over the last few days.
My childhood friend can’t possibly be this stupid?
So, I said I liked me like a jack-ass, made up an excuse and left.
After that, I shot a few glances her way to see if she had any male friends at all.
In the end, I was convinced that she had no male friends whatsoever.
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.
She never shared more than two words with any of them.
The next day, I apologised to her earlier but she seemed confused so I thought I had been wrong.
That was until Hinata invited me to join them for lunch; the first thing I did was look at Akane.
She seemed to dread the idea.
So, I lied and said I was eating lunch with my friends in the next class.
Akane looked so relieved that I felt awful - I never knew my presence could cause someone so much pain.
As time went on, I was slightly frustrated with both of them.
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.
Their ‘skinship’ in school was definitely above that of close female friends, but they just didn’t want to take that next step.
Maybe they’d both convinced themselves that the other didn’t like them.
I once tried teasing Hinata about it, but she hastily told me she doesn’t like Akane romantically – it wasn’t very convincing stuff.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Akane ran away.
I had never seen a human being flee so desperately from a classroom before.
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.
I hit my fist against the bathroom stall doors during my break.
I knew about her issues, but couldn’t help her!
Why did they have to follow me that day?!
I said I’d be five minutes, so why?!
What made me feel even worse was when I came back to class and learnt that Akane hadn’t come back.
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.
I felt sick.
I’d done this to her, intentional or not.
Akane, I want to be your friend and support you, but I don’t want you to suffer because of me either.
So, I decided I’d help her from afar.
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.
That was, in my mind, the best way I could atone for hurting her.