With Mayu leading us, and Himura-san by her side to stay alert for traps, our group marches onwards and begins the search for the keys.
We open doors, and walk around the hallways of the school. The shifting of the rooms naturally doesn’t help and for better or for worse, our morning search turns up zero keys, but also zero danger. After deciding to refill our batteries back at the base, with Himura-san leading the way, we head towards the Home Ec class.
"It's right here." She calls out to us, stopping in front of a door on the second floor.
And of course it HAD to move yet again...
I think to myself as I join up with her. Without wasting a moment, the whole group steps inside the reformed classroom in order to rest. With a quick glance at everybody's faces, I can easily tell that they're in low spirits.
Considering the time limit, can we really afford to rest?
But of course exhausting ourselves will hold us back in the long run. After all, a careless mistake could prove fatal.
I sigh, and grab a seat at the lone desk overlooking the kitchen.
"Don't worry guys, I'll make lunch!" Mayu steps up, a leader's smile plastered on her face. Despite the positive reaction from the others, I find myself furrowing my brows in discontent.
I can tell she's forcing herself to act tough.
Pretending to be calm and collected, she makes for the kitchen. Only when she’s well out of everyone's line of sight does her smile drop. Her face slowly contorts into a deep frown. Without letting that hinder her work, she turns to the fridge, opens it, and takes out some ingredients. Then she looks back at us, opens it yet again and takes out some more. As her frown deepens, she makes yet another pirouette and takes out extra vegetables.
I eventually heave a sigh and get up from my seat, making a beeline for the kitchen.
I can’t afford to sit this one out.
When Mayu notices my presence drawing near, she puts on her leader smile like a mask, and turns to me.
"Anything wrong, Hideki?" She asks me, her voice full of vigor. Or at least, that’s how she wants it to sound anyway.
"Nope, everything's fine. Just wanted to lend you a hand." I reply with a straight but honest face. "Well..." She taps her chin in thought, and eventually nods. "…Okay!" She smiles lightly. "Can you please rinse out the tomatoes?"
"Sure." I shrug and turn to the vegetables. When I’ve grabbed them all, I position them beneath the tap, and run the water.
As I’m sitting next to her, Mayu seems adamant to not let me see through her act.
I sigh once again. She’s a stubborn one.
“Something wrong?” Mayu turns to me, eying me closely. I give my answer some thought and then nod slightly.
“Yeah, actually, there is.”
“You know you can talk to me, right?”
I almost chuckle at her answer. Then why don’t you? I almost ask.
“It’s about Tanaka-san. I’m thinking it’s kinda my fault… that he… you know.” I turn the valve, and the water stops flowing. But I don’t turn to look at Mayu.
“Hideki…” She sighs, and puts her knife down. “It’s not your fault… I don’t know what you and Tanaka-san talked about, but you’re not responsible for anything. We… I’m here for you.” She smiles gently, and for a second a fuzzy feeling spreads throughout my chest. That was genuine at least. “…Just relax, and be positive. Don’t beat yourself up.”
“So I can rely on you?”
“Then, why won’t you do the same?” I finally raise my face and give her a guilty smirk. “….Why are you acting all cool?”
Mayu looks away, and I sense some guilt beneath her gaze.
“Why are you bottling everything up? Why are YOU beating yourself up, Mayu?” I voice and right when she’s about to reply, and probably dismiss me, I speak up again. “…I’m here for you, too.”
Despite the whole thing about me filling guilty was a tad bit exaggerated, my point still stood. My friend was shutting me out, and I couldn’t let that slide. After all, Mayu was the person I trusted the most.
And then I flick her forehead.
“Ouch!” She rubs the spot with her palm, and passes me a short-lived glare. “…How did you know?”
“You’re seriously underestimating me here.”
“If you’re aware enough to preach it, then why not follow your own advice?”
“…You’re right. That was stupid of me.” She finally admits, and looks down at her feet.
“You don’t need to act tough around me…” I raise my fist up to waist level and look at her. “….We’re partners. Right?”
“…Partners.” She smiles somewhat bashfully, and taps her fist against mine.
“Seriously, you don't have to worry about a thing Mayu, remember, one step at a time okay? We'll get through this 100%. I mean we've got the ridiculously lucky Nakajima Mayu leading the charge, so what could possibly go wrong?" I smirk at her and raise a brow.
"Whaaat? On what basis am I lucky?" She protests, her brows furrowed.
"Remember that one time you played in the hook toy machine and got that super rare toy everyone wanted on the first try?"
"Yeah, but luck had nothing to do with it!"
"Mayu. It was broken."
"What? It was?"
"Yep" I nod.
"Still that doesn't mean that-"
Remember that one time at the festival, when that guy you liked walked by and the wind happened to lift your-"
“Shut up, shut up luck wasn’t even on my side that time!”
Mayu rushes to cover my mouth with her hands.
“And that one time your mom was looking for us and-“
“No, no don’t say it!”
The laugh I was holding back bursts out, as Mayu attacks my face with her hands, trying to keep my mouth shut,
“Geez…” She smiles, stopping in her tracks and crossing her arms.
I like it when she's smiling, it gives me the feeling that everything will be alright.
After our bickering, we shift back to cooking, our moods lifted anew.
I roll up my sleeves, and glance at the girl beside me.
"So what are we making, Chef Mayu?"
"Sandwiches, sous-chef Hideki!"
And thus we get to work.
Mayu… Although after I came back to Kirihama, I didn't quite treat her as I should have, she never stopped treating me like a true friend. I need to make up for that too.
Unfortunately, the number of people I've mistreated seems to be growing the more I dwell on the matter.
Hardly half an hour later, our simple meal is already on the table.
It’s practically the same, okay?
We all voice in sync, before digging in.
As everyone munches on their sandwiches, Mayu looks on expectantly.
“It’s really tasty, Nakajima-san.” Ayase flashes her a smile of gratitude.
“Y-Yes! It’s great!” Himura-san nods in agreement.
“It’s good, no worries.” While the thoughtful Ishikawa-senpai nods, I find myself thinking why one needs a compliment for making a sandwich in the first place. I mean, it’s just a sandwich.
Right as I’m dwelling on that, I feel a cold stare from the side, and find Mayu glaring at me.
“You just thought of something rude, didn’t you?” She grits her teeth menacingly.
What is she?! A psychic?!
“I… most definitely did not…!” Having successfully denied the accusation, I put on the best poker face I can muster.
“Ah, that’s your guilty face!”
“It most definitely isn’t!”
“And your speech too! I call super-guilty!”
While we’re bickering, Himura-san tries to suppress a small chuckle on the sidelines.
“Look, your clown act made Himura-san—“
“My… what…?” Mayu suddenly looks me dead in the eye, a menacing aura emanating from her body.
Okay that may have crossed the boundary. Right as I’m about to apologize, and possibly avoid being murdered, Ishikawa-senpai speaks up.
Suddenly, and before Mayu lunges at me, we all shift our attention towards our upperclassman.
“I just wanted to say, I’m sorry for… you know…” She timidly turns to Himura, who looks as oblivious as ever. “….Lashing out, I guess.” She smiles wryly, perhaps feeling the guilt.
“I know it’s a little late, but I just wanted to say it anyway. It never was your fault…” Regaining her composure, and confidence, she bows firmly at Himura-san who’s suddenly left not knowing what to do.
“A-ah! There’s no need to lower your head Ishikawa-senpai! I’ve already forgotten about it anyway!” Himura moves her hands about frantically in embarrassment, as she struggles to form her sentence.
“So… we’re… cool?” Senpai finally raises her head.
“Yes. Yes, we’re very much cool, indeed.”
Himura-san nobody speaks like that in this day and age.
Although I’m thinking about it, I dare not say it. The girls have me outnumbered after all.
“Thanks.” Ishikawa finally smiles, and turns back to her food.
At first I felt like Ishikawa was always on edge, and that she pretty much didn’t like anyone here. But considering she lost her boyfriend, I guess all of that is to be expected. She may be a little rough around the edges, but she’s a nice person at heart. And that’s what counts, I guess.
This little friendly exchange, brings a slight smile to my face, and I soon notice that the rest of the group is smiling too.
“So, Mayu…” Ishikawa now turns to the one she’s the most acquainted with.
“How long have you and Hideki been together?”
I can’t help but choke on my food, by that sudden, and ridiculous question.
“M-m-me? And H-Hideki?!” Mayu stutters, her face reddening like a big ol’ tomato.
Oops, I just called Mayu’s face big… Thank God she’s too preoccupied to see through my narration again.
“Yeah, you thought we wouldn’t notice?” Ishikawa finally smirks at the both of us, while I still struggle to breath, coughing maniacally.
“After all that happened in the kitchen, and the way you act around each other… come on, it’s as plain as day! Right, Mochizuki?”
“Huh?” Ayase starts, as she’s suddenly drawn into the conversation. “…Well I guess, there are some hints here and there.” She shrugs, still not breaking face.
“You too, senpai?!”
“See? Now spill the beans!”
“I already told you, it’s nothing like that!” Mayu protests yet again, the redness reaching all the way to her ears.
“You expect me to believe that? Come on…” Ishikawa-senpai looks like she’s about to withdraw, before her gaze lands on me.
She smirks again.
“Let’s see what the boyFRIEND has to say.”
You didn’t have to emphasize that.
“Hey, Ishikawa-senpai it’s not what you think, really.” I voice somewhat awkwardly.
“Hoh? Is that so? Then what about Mochizuki… or should I say… Ayase-san?” Her smirk widens, as she notices my face growing considerably warmer.
“He’s been calling you that all day, hasn’t he?”
And now it’s Ayase’s turn to be embarrassed.
“H-Hideki-kun is ju-“
“Hideki-kun, huh?” Mayu is the one to give me a sideways glance now.
Seriously, what the hell is going on?!
I need a way out, a way to change the subject!
“How about we all start calling each other by our first names, and call it even?”
“Oh, now he’s hitting on the rest of us, too!” Ishikawa fake gasps.
“Hideki, you pervert.”
Wait did Ayase just call me a leech? How did that fly under the radar?
Himura-san is the last to insult me, the word barely audible.
Having been clearly defeated, I slump back in my chair and sigh in exhaustion,
“Break”, my ass…
Right as I do, the girls all start laughing in unison.
“Jokes aside, I think we should take you up on your offer…” Ishikawa finally speaks, nodding her head. “…What do you all say?” She folds her arms, and throws the girls around her a glance.
“I’m in. It would increase the sense of comradery we’ve been building after all!” Mayu nods vigorously, a smile on her face.
Again, don’t say that aloud Mayu…
“I agree too. You can all call me Ayase.” The student council prez announces with a grin.
“M-me too, please call me Noriko!” Himura joins the fray, and soon, our new way of addressing each other is established.
So to sum up, now I have to call Ishikawa-senpai, Yoko…san? And Himura-san is… Noriko?
I internally sigh. What a hectic lunch break that was.
After we all finish up on the simple, but filling lunch me and Mayu prepared and upping our comradery points, we set out once again in search for the keys that will potentially bring about our salvation.
"Is everyone ready?" Our leader, and my friend, Mayu speaks up.
We all nod in unison, and soon we’re out the door. The last one out, who’s none other than Ayase-san, closes the door behind her and we all shift gears, preparing for the task ahead. Everyone but Yoko-san that is.
"Oh shoot! I forgot my-!"
She perks up like a spring, and turns back towards our home base… Or at least where it used to be.
Then, a scream.
Out of the blue, Noriko shouts out a warning.
Incidentally, Ishikawa has already slid the door open, and her foot hovers just above the floor in front of her.
But, what lies beyond that door is not our home base, the Home Ec classroom anymore...