Chapter 5:

My Best Friend Seems Down, but I Don't Know What to Do.

My Dad is an Otaku, My Mom is a Fujoshi, and I Wish I Was Dead

Introductions? Okay, here goes...

I'm Ayame Shiritori, 16. You can call me Ayame, Aya, Aya-chan, Ayappi, or anything you come up with yourself so long as it's cute. I'm a first-year student in Class 1-1 at Shinchoushi Academy High School in Funabashi, Chiba. I live a couple kilometers away, close enough to walk to school but far enough for it to be a long walk. I don't mind it, though, because it helps wake me up in the morning. I'm 171 cm- I guess that's on the taller side? I get it from my dad.

My three sizes are a secret though~

Wait, why did I say that? It's not like I'm even talking to anyone. Ehehehe, I'm pretty bad at this stuff- I go off on tangents all the time. Anyways, I'm the oldest of a pretty normal family. My parents both work in Tokyo- my dad is an editor for the Shimbun and my mom is a freelance writer. I guess you could say I grew up in a very linguistic family. My dad used to work for Sakubunsha, but about 10 years ago, he took the job at the newspaper. I guess it was the write move for his career! Ahahahahaha, get it?


I'm sorry. That was a terrible joke. I couldn't help it.

Anyways, both of my parents work very hard, but they're usually never home. So I know how to take care of myself. I may not look like it, but I'm a pretty good cook! Or is it the other way around? Tomboys in manga and light novels are more likely to be good cooks than bad ones these days. Like Nagisa Fujimi from My Sister's Too Lazy To Study. She's a total tomboy type but she's so amazing at cooking it impressed Kotarou-kun and then when Sachi tried, even though she's so feminine, she was terrible at cooking...but she still won Kotarou's heart even though Nagisa had loved her ever since they were children...and Sachi had no personality beyond being the ideal girlfriend...gah, it's so dumb that she won! Nagisa-chan was obviously the better girl for Kotarou, was the author stupid or something?

...Aaah, I spoiled! I'm really sorry! Forget you heard that...

Back to my self-introduction. I have a younger brother, Ryou, who's going to turn 13 in September. He used to be so cute when he was younger. I remember when he came sniffling to me when he was in first grade, saying that the other boys in his class took his Zeroranger toy, so I went and beat them all up! And I got to tell them how wrong they were for what they did, too! I was so proud of myself for that...I was only in fourth grade but I felt like a real-life hero. Now, he's just an annoying little brat. He thinks he's a tough gangster and he skips school and tries to bum cigarettes off the local delinquents who hang out behind the Lowson during the day. He's a middle-class private-school kid- he's not fooling anyone. I read somewhere that a kid who thinks he's a tough gangster is a type of chuunibyou, but I'd much rather prefer him to be an actual chuuni. If he was going around grabbing at his arm and telling everyone there was a demon in there, it would be pretty funny. As he is now, he's just annoying.

Anyway, where was I? Oh right, my family. When my dad worked at Sakubunsha, he used to bring me home all sorts of colorful books- manga and such. I was hooked. Whenever I read these stories, it was like I was sucked into these worlds, fighting epic battles, piloting mecha, saving the kingdom from the evil dragons, you name it! So I always asked for more, and more, and more...and then I started to write and draw them myself, and I got into light novels, and anime, and visual novels...what? There's no shame in being an otaku- because when you are, every day is anim-azing!

I'm sorry. I promise that will be the last of it. I really do.

Anyways, I see it like this. People want to experience good stories because that will make them happy. So I want to make stories that will make people happy. Like for me, my favorite manga author is Miko Mikono. I will admit, she's a bit obscure (but if nobody knew who she was, she wouldn't have won a Taisho, stupid Haru)- but when I read her, it makes me happy. Her writing skill- amazing. Her worldbuilding- second to none! That's why I want to make stories that can move people as much as Mikono-sensei moved me. I'm just sad she quit. Imagine what beautiful stories that we could have gotten if she'd never ended her career after just one series...

So I'll write all those stories once I become a mangaka. I'll pick up the slack until they're calling me the Mikono-sensei of our time! No, I could never live up to her...but at the same time...what a dream it would be if people spoke of the humble and lovable Aya-chan the same way as they did Mikono...I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll stop.

Anyways, my story begins here. Every year, Comic Blasters, the online manga reader, puts out a one-shot challenge- come one, come all, and submit your stories, and the winner gets published. It's not a new concept, but it's an update for the always-online youth of Gen-Z, and my club decided that all of us would enter it to test our skills. So here I am, in the middle of Manga Research Club, presenting my draft one-shot, Sarah Amidst the Stars.

"So this is Sarah-chan, the main heroine, and she's an ordinary Earth girl...'My life is so boring...'" I repeat in the breathy soprano I envision her having. I always act out my characters as I come up with them, because it makes me feel like they're actually alive. In this case, I thought she would be voiced by Hana Kanezawa-san if she was animated, so I drew a character that I thought matched...No, it's not weird! Good authors do this all the time. I read it in the back pages of Janp when they were doing an interview with Okawa-sensei.

"And then she gets whisked away into an alien starship by Prince Tarquinius, the exiled heir to the Gomorthan Empire. He was set to inherit this galactic empire, but when his father died, his uncle overthrew him after his council betrayed him, so now he's forming his own army to take back the throne that is rightfully his. 'I will reclaim what is mine'," I say in my best impersonation of the deep, suave voice of Kanji Murano.

"The Prince and his uncle are both seeking out Sarah because it turns out she's the living key to an ancient piece of fantastical technology that will turn the bearer immortal and his uncle wants her to claim immortality and rule forever, and the Prince wants to keep her away, but she doesn't know because she has amnesia, but along the way as she travels she learns more about herself and then she and the Prince start falling for each other. And then there's a final battle between the Prince and his uncle where they have mecha and they go like WHABANG! WHABANG! BOOM!" I make sure to use my hands to show them just how epic this final battle is. "And then Sarah-chan and the Prince sacrifice themselves to ensure peace in the cosmos forever! So, what do you think? Pretty decent, right?"

It's definitely better than decent for a first try, in my humble opinion. I tried to take elements from Mikono-sensei and a bunch of other series and even that one video game I played with these robots on a post-apocalyptic Earth. I'm not ashamed to admit I cried when I imagined Sarah and the Prince giving up their lives for the sake of the galaxy. Yeah, I kinda did copy that one off of Color a little bit...but I think it's going to be okay.

I listen for a second...and there's no applause, just a room full of stares.

"I like your enthusiasm, Shiritori-san," says the serious girl with glasses, bangs, and shoulder-length straight hair sitting in front of me, "but isn't it a bit much?"

This is Momo Kakihara, the MRC club president. She's already made an honorable mention in a Shonen Star one-shot contest before, so she knows what she's talking about, but she has a tendency to be too blunt...just like Haru-kun, really.

"What do you mean?" I ask. Surely she liked it, but I'm okay with a little bit of criticism.

"How long is your one-shot?" she inquires, cocking her head a bit.

"Uhh...345 pages."

"What was the maximum again?" she replies with a cool gaze, her piercing eyes going straight through me.

"150. But it's a rough draft. I'll cut some stuff down. Ehehehe..."

"That's the point I'm trying to make. You really put a lot of effort into it, but it seems like you did too much. You have enough material for a full series here."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing. But you need to understand your audience, Shiritori-san. You're being judged not only by the editors but by the readers here. The editors care more about what your work shows about you as a creator more than the content. What kind of spin do you put on the prompt? How much attention do you pay to detail? The reason that the readers take a vote on their favorite one-shots is because the editors want to see how well you can catch the attention of your audience. I'm not sure that a slow-burning tale of romance among the stars, especially with so much exposition, will catch the readers' eyes. They'll pay attention to bold and flashy and outlandish things. Not to be too harsh, here, Shiritori-san, but it seems like the audience you're writing this for is you and you alone. I'm not saying this is a bad thing...but it's really something that only an author with existing pull in the industry can do. If it's a newbie who writes like this, the editors will think you're a prima donna who will fight them on changes all the time. Anyways, just my two cents."

"You're so ruthless, Prez," I sigh. It's not just her way of ripping people apart without even a change in the expression on her face that annoys me, it's the fact that she's always right whenever she does so. Of course, she's got more experience submitting entries to competitions than me, and I know in her mind she's probably giving honest advice, but still, no one likes having their creations dismissed like that. Ugh, and I worked hard on it, too!

"How can you be so sure when you say that?" I question. Maybe she's just being too harsh. I'm going to get her to say she liked it!

"My first year I submitted to Weekly Sunrise," the president begins, with not a hint of any expression coming over her face, "I submitted a romance that I thought was perfect. I took all the time in the world to make sure the characters' actions made sense, to make sure it was logical and had a message that was uplifting and reflected the story...and I didn't even make the honorable mentions. The winner was a one-shot that had a high school boy fighting demons with magical blades that turn into naked women."

Ouch. That's harsh, Prez. I silently pay my respects to her one-shot in my mind. Men are such horndogs that whenever a manga has nudity, it will get some attention. Of course, not that seeing some boobs is inherently wrong or anything...ehehehehe...but it's there to add to an already good story, not to be the focus itself. Fanservice for the sake of fanservice isn't a good thing.

I look at the two second-year boys sitting near the back of the room, both unkempt, one gangly and scrawny, the other chubby. In every sense of the word, they are the stereotypical otaku. You know the guys in manga that wear opaque glasses and breathe heavily and they generally exist just to be made fun of? In real life, otaku come in every shape and size. Except for when it comes to these guys...the stereotype is pretty dang accurate. "Tamura-senpai! Nishida-senpai! You liked it, didn't you?"

"Well, yes..." the chubby one replies. "But it was kind of..."

"Kind of what?" I lean in. I know these guys, they're so intimidated and flustered by women that I can get them to say whatever I want.

"IT WAS GREAT!" they both reply in unison.

Heh, heh. Glad to see someone liked it. Maybe I'll show Haru-kun next. Then again, he'll just look at it and say without breaking a sweat, "This looks like a sixth grader wrote it. Are you stupid or something?" and then I'll have to remind him of the time when his zipper was undone in seventh grade or the time when he lost his foil Red Eyed Gold Dragon in sixth grade and cried about it all week or the time where I caught him...actually, I'd rather not think about that last one.

"See, I knew it. What about you, Suzuran?" I turn to the quiet girl sitting in the chair beside the president. I met her yesterday, when I was scouring the school looking high and low for fans of Mikono-sensei so that I could shut Haru up. I brought her to the club today...actually, I kinda kept asking her until she said yes and it took a few tries, but if she really didn't want to come, she would have said no. And I think she's liked it so far.

"I-it definitely had a lot of p-passion feelings..." she mumbles in a breathy whisper that's so quiet it might be mistaken for a breeze.

"See? That's what I'm talking about, Prez!" I exclaim triumphantly. "The audience likes it too!"

She gives the barest of half-smirks. "It's not as easy to win over actual editors." She then comes to the front of the classroom. "Here's my entry. Sonata, a one-shot about a boy who loves to play the piano but, try as he might, can't get any better at it, until he sees a mysterious figure in his dreams."

She begins to show her submission to the crowd, and it's perfect. It's not a grand, epic narrative, but it's definitely moving. Unlike my one-shot, which is still in the rough draft phase and is still just scribbles on a storyboard, the art in hers looks ready to publish. Even with only pencil drawings, Kakihara-senpai is such a brilliant artist. There's plenty of creative art that's flashy enough to get the attention of anyone who reads her one-shot for the first time, but there's nothing too pandering or trashy about the story. It's a wonderful dreamscape, brought to life by the care of its artist.

One day, I'm going to surpass Kakihara-senpai, but that day isn't today. Ugh, I put so much effort into my story, too...and she blew me out of the water without even trying.

The two otaku boys present a very generic battle harem story, but its simplicity is pretty endearing. I mean, the best stories are the ones that have something to say, but everything doesn't have to be a groundbreaking masterpiece. Sometimes you just want to read something that's fun. Those two have that down.

Suzuran doesn't say much, and she doesn't present since this is the first time she's ever come to a MRC meeting, but she watches each story pitch with her utmost attention. After the meeting ends, she gives a quick nod and bow before immediately ducking out. I wanted to ask her what she thought, but she's left before I can. Oh well. She'll definitely be back.

"So, what did you think, Shiritori-san?" the club president inquires as we pack up. "It seems like you really liked my one-shot, but you didn't say anything."

"Yours is good enough to be published right now," I sigh. "You're way too talented, Prez. I don't know how I can catch up."

Is she amused? Something tells me she is, but I can't really read her. 

"It's not as much of a talent thing as you think. This is the twentieth time I've entered a contest like this, and it's what? Your first?" Kakihara-senpai says.


"Don't let it get you down. Everyone starts somewhere. Like I said before, my first contest entry didn't make the awards page. Actually, it wasn't even ranked in the top half of the entries. When I got my feedback, I was so torn up that I considered just stopping. I'm glad I didn't. You still have plenty of time to develop your skills."

I know the president is trying to cheer me up, but I seriously doubt an artist as talented as her was ever ranked in the bottom half of any contest.

"You're definitely in a better place than a lot of first-timers. Shiritori-san, have you done this before?"

"Uhh, yeah...I used to draw some as a hobby."

"I see. That explains it. When I said it seems like your audience was just yourself, I didn't mean you were arrogant or anything of that sort. Since you've drawn manga for fun in the past, you're used to being the sole audience for what you write. You have a lot of good ideas, but you need to refine them so that the feelings that you want to convey can reach your readers. Once you get enough experience, you'll probably surpass me."

"Oh, please, Prez. I draw like crap," I laugh. A part of me is swelling with pride about her praising me, but I can't just say You bet I'm going to surpass you! to my senpai. That's rude.

"That comes with time too.” She cuts off and stares at the clock. "It's nearly 7:30. I'm sorry for keeping you so long, Shiritori-san. I can't wait to see the next stages of your project!"

"You too, Prez!" I wave as I leave out the door. Although I'm not sure what, if anything, could be improved on her manga. I'll have to think about that, but it's already good enough, in my mind, to be inked and submitted.

Since club ran late today, the school hallways are almost empty, with the rays of the setting sun burning the pattern of the windows in light and shadow on the flooring of the cultural club building. It's a quick walk to the shoe locker, where I exchange my well-worn school shoes with my name written on them in faded marker for my equally-faded white sneakers. I remember when I bought these- it was a week before the start of my second year of middle school and my old pair of outdoor shoes had a hole in the toe, so my dad took me to the store and we picked these out. I know the conservative choice of outdoor shoes with a school uniform is black leather, but these looked so good with Shinchoushi's green-and-teal tartan skirts that I had to buy them, and no one's ever complained to me about them in the first place.

As I turn my phone on, I notice a message pop up on the screen. It's from my mom. Sorry, Aya-chan, I'm working late again today. Mrs. Kouga has some dinner for you if you'd like to go pick it up. And then: I promise I'll make it up to you soon.

I sigh. She's been working really hard these past few days and hasn't been home often. Dad, meanwhile, works so much I don't ever see him but on the weekends. This past Monday I was over at the Kougas' home because Mrs. Kouga said she'd made too much food for her family, and wanted to know if I wanted the extra.

Oh! Who are the Kougas? I can't believe I've gone this far without mentioning that. I'm going off about Haru-kun this and Haru-kun that and you probably have no idea who I'm talking about...ehehehehehe...well, I warned you I was a bit of a scatterbrain, so don't hate me for it...

I've known them ever since I was a baby. My dad and Mr. Kouga are old friends, so I grew up around them. Mr. Kouga- Tomoyuki-san- is a software developer, but he's a pretty passionate otaku, so we share a lot of the same interests. Mrs. Kouga- Chisato-san- is also a hardcore otaku but in a different way. She's very youthful and energetic. She's always kept trying to get me to call her "Chi-chan", but calling someone three times my age that is kinda weird. She may not look like it- she loves otome games and cosplaying- but she's a very motherly type, and whenever I've needed help she's always treated me like I'm her own daughter. We both play the same sorts of games, like Sparkle, so we end up talking about those whenever we see each other. See, that's why otaku stuff is great, because it brings people together! Last Monday when I went over there, we had a conversation about the Sports Festival event in Sparkle and the cute new graphics of the boys changing. I guess you could say we were really having some locker room talk!

...That wasn't on just slipped out, I swear!

They have two kids. Kaede-chan is the younger daughter- I don't really talk to her much, but she's definitely very cute. Haruto is their oldest son- he's my age. We've been classmates forever. It's funny how these things work out- it really is like a manga, isn't it? I once joked that my parents ought to have named me Najimi. Tomoyuki-san and Chisato-san got it. Haru-kun didn't. We used to play together when we were kids. There were a big group of kids from his neighborhood and I got invited, too, because Haru was in charge and we knew each other. Then, gradually, everyone moved away or went to schools in other places until it was just me and him, and he got all sullen and depressed. I know boys sometimes will get in this stage where they think they're the smartest person in the world and no one else understands them and then they become...what's the word? Nihilists. Maybe he's just being your typical brooding teen. Come to think of it, that’s another type of chuunibyou. Gakuto from Sparkle is like that and that's what makes him so cute!

I mean the character Gakuto Haibara is cute. That's completely independent of what I think about Haru. I know sometimes his attitude can be annoying, and he complains about his parents way too much- I'd love it if my mom talked about Sparkle and games with me. I’d love it if my mom was around enough for me to talk about games with her. It's really boring keeping your hobbies to yourself. But still, he can be a jerk, but Haru has a soft side that he doesn't like to show others too much. I guess he thinks he'll look weak if he does. Boys are funny when they're tsunderes. So yeah, Haru can be rude, and he can be sour and he can be whiny, but he's too precious to me for me to treat him the same way.

...I don't mean in that sense, okay?! He's really more like a brother or a cousin. I remember all the times he was there for me when I was young...I remember when I was eight and jumped off the top of the slide in the small park near Haru's home and I broke my ankle and he carried me the whole way to the hospital. It had to have been at least three kilometers and he was struggling, but he still pushed through, and my mom was the angriest I've ever seen her, yelling at me for being stupid and jumping, yelling at him for being even stupider instead of getting an adult to call the ambulance and not knowing he could have messed up my foot permanently or could have hurt himself from all that effort...but he did all that for me. So I want to be the same kind of person for him. Especially lately. He's always been pretty sharp-tongued, but ever since we've started high school he's seemed distant. Like he's in a trance or something. The other day we made a bet that there was no one else in the school outside of the MRC who knew about Mikono-sensei, because "Manga is for kids" as he puts it, and when I found Suzuran and rubbed it in his face, he didn't even say "How much did you bribe her?" or something that Normal Haru-kun would say, since he hates losing. He just kind of nodded and didn't say much.

Speaking of that, I brought all seven volumes of Color with me in my bag, so when I see Haru-kun I'm going to foist them on him. A sneak attack when he least expects it!

The walk to the Kougas' house is short. They live in a western-style home, boxy with patterns of red brick and white stucco. A small black car sits in the driveway. I walk up to the glass-paneled door and ring the bell.

"Coming!" I hear a singsongy voice from inside the house, and Chisato-san opens the door. She's actually dressed normal today. I was kinda hoping she'd be dressed as a ProKore or something. "Ah, Aya-chan! I'm so glad to see you again!"

"Thanks for having me, Chisato-san." I take off my shoes in the foyer. I'm not going to be staying very long- I know they probably have stuff they need to do- but I still want to be polite. I follow her to the kitchen...evidently, they've just finished. Tomoyuki-san is still at the table and he gives me a small nod as I pass by. The kids are nowhere to be seen. "Where's Haru?"

Chisato-san puts a finger on her chin. "Hmm...he went right to his room as soon as dinner was over. Said he wasn't feeling well."

"Aww, that's a shame...I had something I needed to give him. Do you mind to take these and give them to him when he's feeling better?" 

I pull out the volumes from my bag and she gives them a quizzical stare, tilting her head a bit. "Are those..."

"The Color Of My Heart, 1997-2002. Sakubunsha Novice '98, Taisho ‘00." I really can't be as smug about it to Haru-kun's mom as I can be to him. Sadly. It seems like she embarrasses him enough without me helping.

"Hmm...that ran in Young Friend, didn't it? I was in college when it came out, so I vaguely remember it...but I wasn't really into the artsy stuff. I only cared about the stuff with cute guys in Flowers Bucket and those ones...Hey, Aya-chan, have you played the new Sparkle event?" She suddenly takes out her phone, and on it I see an image of a white-haired, blue-eyed young boy in a very elaborate, dark costume with zippers and ribbons everywhere. "It's the brand new 7☆ SSR Alone in the Garden Raya-kun, and I just rolled him! Isn't he so CUTE?! KYAAAAAA!"

Of course I've played it! I saw the whole set of new cards a few months ago when it was leaked, and I've already started on the storyline, but I don't have the heart to tell Chisato-san that. She looks so pleased with herself.

"During the Sports Festival, Raya-kun and Tomoki were getting so close...and both of them got SSRs this time! They're DEFINITELY getting together!" She's blushing with happiness.

Raya Ichijou is the drummer of the band Es Or S in the game, and Tomoki Asahina is their lead singer and guitarist. They have a dark, edgy aesthetic, so even though they're not the main band (that's Knight Fighterz), they got popular enough that recent events focus on them. Raya-kun is the youngest. He's a chuunibyou, like the type I was talking about earlier that wears an eyepatch and acts like he has a demon sealed in his eye. He's really popular among older women. I saw an online poll once where I think 95% of his fans were over 30. I guess he activates motherly instinct or something. Tomoki is the oldest, and he's a really suave bishonen but he's also a caring older brother type to all the other boys in the band, so that's how that ship got started, I think.

I'm sorry, Mrs. Kouga, you can dream all you want...but no gacha game is EVER going to have two of their characters become a couple. It's all about money, and pissing off people who ship something else will make them stop playing...which loses money. Shipping is something SERIOUS. Having an actual couple is disrespectful to all the effort fans put into their ships, and it's just cruel to dash dreams like that!

...Well, not that I'm much of a shipper...they can get pretty intense. I mainly use the game as a reference for my art, and because I like the rhythm aspect of it...but I have to admit, Arata and Yuu-kun are really cute together...

Chisato-san has completely forgotten the nikujaga that's shrinkwrapped on the counter for me as we talk and talk about the Sports Festival event and how good it was and what characters we like the best and what we've rolled recently and the difficulty rank of our recent clears. She's so easy to talk to about this stuff. I know Haru complains about her a lot, but I'm a little envious. If I told my mom about Sparkle, she'd probably reply with "That's great, honey." At best.

Suddenly, Chisato stops talking and focuses on something behind me, so I turn around too. Tomoyuki-san is gone from the dinner table, and in his place Haru-kun has come down the stairs with his hair all messy from lying on it or something.

"Oh, Haruto!" his mother calls out. "Aya-chan's brought you something!"

A grin creeps up my face as I prepare to gloat about my favorite manga author, but he just looks down, makes a tch sound, and walks off to go somewhere else.

"Hey, don't be so rude!" Chisato-san calls out, but gets no reply.

"Sorry about that, Aya-chan," she says sympathetically. "I almost forgot. Your food's right here."


I can't help but stare at the place where he went...something, deep down, is gnawing at me, telling me it's my fault he's acting this way.

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy