“Aaaand they’re gone.” Right when the two boys of the group left the safety of the Home Ec to go look for clues, Mayu exclaimed with a sigh, as she came and sat next to me.
My foot wasn’t hurting as bad, and I was confident I would be in tip-top shape come tomorrow. Did we have the luxury to wait until tomorrow though…?
“Ayase-senpai, are you feeling any better?” Mayu asked, and I decided to give her a reassuring smile.
“A lot better actually.”
“Uhm… Mayu-san?” Noriko suddenly sidles up next to us, her gaze cast down.
“What’s wrong Noriko?”
“I… I’m sorry about Yoko-senpai…” Mustering all of her courage, she manages to spell those words out.
“E-eh…?” Mayu is clearly confused, and rightfully so. Noriko was more like offering an apology, than her condolences. And to Mayu… specifically?
“What is that all about Noriko?” She can’t help but ask that very question.
“I should have warned everyone sooner… that way Yoko-senpai wouldn’t have to—“
“Noriko! It’s not your fault.” Mayu cuts her off before she can finish, in an attempt to reassure her.
“But… but it is! I know you two were close and…” Her voice trails off, trying to hold back tears of guilt. “…I should have done better.”
“Noriko…” Mayu sighs, and urges her on to sit next to me too.
Wow, I’m getting a first class seat to watching this unfold…
Okay stop that Ayase…
After shaking off those thoughts, I shift my focus back to the two of them.
“…In no way, do I think you’re responsible.” Mayu smiles, her palm gently resting on top of Noriko’s.
“But I failed her… I failed her just like I failed Kurosawa…”
“You did no such thing, Noriko. Despite your ability, you’re only human.” Mayu’s tone is so soothing, it extends even to myself, putting my mind at ease.
“Noriko-san! I-I agree with Mayu!” The only other girl in the room, finally joins our small circle, her hands clasped together.
“See? Hota-chan thinks so too!”
“But… But what good are those powers if I can’t save anyone…?” Noriko’s cheeks are now stained with tears, while her head is cast down still, in a form of an apologetic bow.
“Believe me Noriko, we probably wouldn’t be alive had it not been for your powers now.”
“Y-Yes, Noriko-san! You have saved us already!” Despite Hotaru’s timid nature, she finds it in her to cheer Noriko on. Although she’s only acting like a play-back of Mayu at this point.
Up until now, I had only been a spectator in this conversation, yet my lips curl up at the scene…
“Noriko…” I find myself smiling at those three girls. What would Hideki say, if he was part of this conversation, I wonder? “You have already done plenty for the group. We would all be in dee… doomed without you.”
Yikes I almost said deep shit! Get your head back in the game Ayase!
“Ayase-senpai…” Noriko eyes glisten with tears, as she clasps Mayu’s hand, and rests her head on top of it. “Thank you, everyone…”
“Ayase-senpai were you just about to say “deep shit”?”
“Me? No, that must have been your imagination…”
“Nothing, huh?” I sigh, as me and Kazuya have surveyed most of the school in less than an hour.
Of course, we didn’t want to risk checking the majority of the classrooms, because we didn’t know if they were trapped or not. But we nonetheless couldn’t find a place to fit a key into anyway.
Dejected, we decide to check out outside the main school building just to be on the safe side, before we make it back to the others. We make the rounds of the yard, checking at the separate bathroom buildings first.
“Okay, you go check the ladies’ restroom, and I’ll check the men’s section.” I announce.
“Wait! Why should I go check the ladies’ bathroom?”
“What? It’s not like anyone is in there…”
“Yeah, but it still feels… wrong, I guess?”
I sigh momentarily.
“You’re just being paranoid.” I give him a disapproving look.
“Okay, then why don’t you go Hideki?”
“Nah, that would be weird.”
Ultimately, we decided to settle our debate with a round of rock-paper-scissors.
And of course I was victorious.
“Nothing, huh?” I am the one to sigh yet again.
And just like the last time, Kazuya slumps his shoulders dejectedly.
Before going back, we make one last round around the school building, just in case.
Kazuya starts, as we walk through the grassy part of the schoolyard. The space between the gate and the main school building is paved with concrete blocks, and lined with benches like your typical school. Nothing too grand.
We walk past some trees, while Kazuya continues on.
“So, are you and Kaichou… you know?”
“Me and Ayase-san?”
I cock my head to the side quizzically. I mean, we’ve had our moments since yesterday night, but those were all unavoidable situations.
Yet those feelings within me may be saying otherwise…
I shake my head, and continue explaining.
“We’re nothing like that.” I can’t hide the bitterness in my tone. Why was I bitter anyway?
“What do you mean?”
“Like, you seem close. Figured you liked her or something.” Kazuya shrugs, as I ponder on that.
Me, liking Ayase-san? Like-like?
“I mean sure she’s drop-dead gorgeous, and her smiles are to die for, but that doesn’t mean I—“
I didn’t even realize what I was saying out loud until Kazuya gave me a sly smirk.
In an attempt to hide my flushed face, I clear my throat.
“Anyway… Even if I did, she doesn’t see me like that anyway.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
At the sound of that unexpected reply I make a pause
“…What do you mean?”
“I mean from my point of view, you at least look like you have a chance.” Kazuya looks back at me with another shrug.
“Nah, I don’t know man…”
I honestly appreciate the thought, but the school idol wouldn’t just go out with a nobody like me. Yet again, the situation we were in right now wasn’t exactly normal. And we didn’t even know if things would go back to normal anyway.
“You could at least confess if you like her.”
Did I like Ayase-san though? I really needed to sort my feelings out. And the situation we were in now didn’t really leave any room for me to do that. What took priority now was to get the hell out of here. Then, when all of this was over, maybe…
But yet again… if all went well, I doubted I would find an occasion to talk to Ayase-san again. We were from fundamentally different social standings after all.
Agh… All of this is getting troublesome. Worries like that weren’t my top priority right now.
“We’ll see. Thanks for the encouragement though.”
After heaving an exhausted sigh, I give out my reply.
Having reached the back of the building, a quick scan of the perimeters allows us to notice something peculiar…
“The showers, huh?”
We’re both quite baffled. I was sure the showers were over at the other edge of the sports fields. And the sports fields were… well, past that ominous veil covering the whole perimeter.
“Where they here this morning?”
“Dunno… never checked.”
When me and Ayase-san returned to the Home Ec in the morning, we naturally didn’t make any rounds across the school. We didn’t even know if the monster was still around at that time either…
“Why don’t we check it out, then?” Kazuya proposes, while I give a firm nod. Don’t see what we got to lose anyway… I doubt there would be a trap all the way out here…
The showers are of course separated by gender, in two sections, just like the bathroom buildings. Although they existed for as long as I can remember not many people really used them. And of course, I fell in that category myself. I mean, showering together with a bunch of dudes I’m not really acquainted with sounded really unnecessary. Especially if I didn’t sweat a lot during P.E. Normally, a clean change of clothes did the trick for me. The major part that made the shower even more embarrassing was that the showers weren’t even built with an inner separation… It was more like a military-grade shower room, with just a number of showerheads hanging from the ceiling. And I imagine the same would be the case for the girls’ part too.
Me and Kazuya push the door open to the men’s section first and take a cautious step inside. If there were a trap here, we’d probably be walking right into it.
I gulp, as I look around.
It looks fairly normal.
I think I’ve only been here once or twice, in those two years I’ve been attending the school, but I’m fairly positive nothing is out of the ordinary.
“Any doors, trapdoors, or lockers?” I ask, while scanning the room with my eyes.
“I don’t see anything…”
Looks like the showers were a dud too.
We hang around for a little while, before making our way to the ladies’ part.
For some weird reason, the place seems… cleaner?
I could never understand how that works.
Apart from it being in better shape, it looks like the perfect copy of the mens’ section.
“Looks like a whole lot of nothing…” Kazuya sighs for the umpteenth time, his patience wearing out.
Then, as we’re both dejectedly preparing to leave the small building, a voice startles us.
“Woah!” Kazuya instantly jumps at the figure hovering before us.
“Oh, it’s just Mei-san…” I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding, as I recognize the familiar spirit in front of me.
Prompted by Kazuya, Mei points at the key in my palm.
“What about it?” I ask, eyeing it closely.
“It can’t be used yet.”
“Can’t be used…” “Yet?”
Kazuya and I look at each other in utter confusion.
“That’s what the energy it emits tells me.”
Energies can talk now?
“…The energy within lies dormant. As if suppressed.”
The spirit continues, leaving me even more baffled than before.
“So it can’t be used now, huh?”
Mei nods after Kazuya’s question.
And as if her work here was done, Mei-san ups and disappears just like that.
“Well, no point in searching around then.”
Wow, we just wasted a whole hour.
As the both of us turn to leave the showers, I suddenly stop in my tracks.
The showers, huh?
We’ve all been quite exhausted… so how about…?
“You know, we could all use break, right?”
“A break, huh?” He proceeds to think to himself for a moment.
“What do you say we round up everyone and…?”
“Well, you’re the leader.” Kazuya shrugs, smiling slightly.
“Me? Nah, Mayu’s the leader. I’m her left-hand man at best.”
“You mean right-hand…”
“Nah, Mayu’s left-handed.”
“So guys, now that the boys are gone, and we’re all here…” Mayu looks over at all of the others gathered around us. “It’s time for girl-talk.”
Girl-talk? And she wants to do that NOW of all times?
I find myself furrowing my brows at her. I sincerely doubt it’s the right time for that sort of thing, but once Mayu has set her mind on something, she can’t very well be stopped.
“Girl-talk?” Noriko’s more perplexed than I’ve ever seen her. And that speaks volumes.
“What do you mean, Mayu-san?” Hotaru cocks her head timidly.
“I’m talking romance girls! Romance!”
We all look at her in silent confusion.
Romance talk, in a haunted school, right after… you know what happened. Things can’t get any weirder than this…
Yet somehow, I know Mayu will turn this into a fun time. Unless the conversation leads to me, somehow…
“Me?” I point at myself sheepishly, a smile plastered on my face.
“What’s with you and Hideki?” Mayu smirks, causing my face’s temperature to rise. What does Hideki have to do with this?!
“Me? And Hideki-kun? Haha, you mu—“
“Ayase-senpai…” Her tone suddenly shifts into a reprimanding one.
“I have… seen it too.” Suddenly, the most unlikely to join, Hotaru, strikes a blow below the belt.
“See, Seee?!” Mayu, having found a lead to grab onto, presses onwards.
“We are just friends. And…”
“…I know I can trust him. That’s all,”
“I trust Hideki-kun too. He’s very reliable…” Noriko timidly joins in, her heading bobbing up and down.
“Oh, senpai, you’ve got a rival it seems!” Mayu snickers. “What have you done to those girls, oh sweet-childhood-friend o’ mine!” She throws her arms up in a dramatic manner.
Then I find the leeway to strike a blow of my own.
“What about you Mayu? Do you like Hideki?”
“Pfftt! Wha...?” Just as I expected she looks away.
“Hideki is… a friend. Always has been…” Mayu’s face lights up momentarily at those words. When I see her making that face, I realize… she must cherish him dearly. The bond they share is really deep. Maybe… I’m no match for her…
No match? Why am I even comparing myself to Mayu…?
…And always will be. I know that, and I couldn’t be happier.” She finishes her sentence and flashes me a look.
“Huh…” I find myself unable to pursue the subject any further.
“You know, Hideki is changing…”
He is… what?
“He has never been this way before. I’ve always tried to drag him out the protective shell he has built around him, but I could never quite do it. Turns out that now, he’s doing it all by himself.” Almost like she’s reminiscing, her tone softens as she speaks about her friend.
Hideki has… changed?
It has struck me, that I never knew how he was before, if that is really the case. All I know is the present Hideki….
How was he before? Why did he change?
Did he change… for the better?
I wanted to know the answer to those questions. But more importantly…
I wanted to learn more about him.
“So if Hideki got together with anyone, I would be more than thankful…” Mayu smiles warmly at me, indicating that she has caught on to what is happening…
Wait… what is happening?
“Uhm…!” Hotaru, hands clasped together, bows at me and says… “I’m rooting for you, Ayase-senpai!”
“M-me too!” Noriko bows too her tone full of determination.
“Wait, wait, and wait! Why-oh-why did it come to this?!” I can’t help but be flabbergasted at this sudden turn of events.
“Hideki is the only subject that can make you like this Ayase-senpai…” Noriko points out. She said something along those in the library as well…
What did she mean though?
“I think she means expressive…” Mayu gives me a look.
Expressive? Have they seen through my… act?
“B-But…” I stutter, giving the leeway for Hotaru to join in.
“You’re cuter this way, Ayase-senpai.”
Safe to say I’m completely out of the loop. What the hell is going on here?
Having being utterly defeated, I hang my head low. My cheeks, unable to bear the rising temperature, heat up and I can already imagine how red they must be right about now…
What is going on with me?
“Hota-chaaan…” Having claimed her first victim, Mayu now turns to the girl beside her.
“Y-Yes, M-Mayu-san?” You can already hear the despair in her voice…
Mayu is scary.
“What about you and Kazuya-kun?”
What’s that? A sound effect?
“Oh-ho-ho… Jackpot?” Mayu, the devil, smirks yet again. “Noriko, your verdict?”
“I think… they suit each other.” She thinks for a bit, before deciding. Little does she know, that she’s only fueling the ever-growing fire that is Hotaru.
“Me and Kazuya-kun? W-why do you—“
“So nothing happened while you were alone?” Mayu marches onwards, looking for answers.
“N-No… Kazuya is kind, and caring… he would never…”
“Aw, so he’s kind?” Mayu takes on a dreamy look.
Somebody just lend her a shoujo manga already before she tears this group apart with her antics!
“It’s not… like that…” Hotaru, exhausted, heaves a sigh.
“There’s only one way to settle this…” Mayu then draws a breath, and tosses her question out in the open. “Who’s better-looking?”
Say what, girl?
I didn’t even realize when I had replied myself… But Hotaru said Kazuya? Come on…
“Oh it appears we have a stalemate… Noriko! You’re up!” Mayu, just like the host in a TV show, passes the imaginary mic to Noriko.
“I… both are great.” She gives a thumbs-up and a blank expression.
Wow look at that coward…
I obviously can’t hide the disapproval in my face.
“What about you, Mayu?” I turn to the last person who can turn the tide around.
“Oh, me? I say Hideki.” She shrugs and I pump a fist in my head. In your face!
Wait why did this turn into a competition anyway?
“I disagree.” Hotaru pouts at the two of us. Wow, I think that’s the first time she’s ever been defiant. Mayu’s charisma works wonders…
“Kazuya-kun is better looking.” She timidly looks away.
Huh? She’s still going on about that…?
Just as I’m about to start a debate yet again, the door bursts open and in come the two boys.
“Oh, you’re here.” Mayu perks up.
“Yeah, we heard some voices so it wasn’t hard for us to find you.” Hideki explains with a shrug. Wait…
They couldn’t hear us, right…?
My face turns red at the thought.
“Did you find anything?” Noriko says, as she gets up and straightens her skirt out.
“No, not yet, but we’ve got a proposal.”
Hotaru cocks her head to the side.
The boys share a brief look, before they nod at each other and say…
“Let’s all take a shower!”
And lastly Noriko…
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