Chapter 9:

My Childhood Friend is Making Me Uncomfortable.

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

When I wake up, I’m in a totally unfamiliar place.

The walls are white, the floor is white, and the sunlight shining through the window is so white it hurts. I’m spread out on a wrinkled, faded futon that has clearly seen better days and is also kicked halfway off of me. The room around me is totally bare- just plain white carpet and stark walls with the only thing other than me being a bunch of boxes and clutter stacked up against the sides of the room. This room isn’t even austere because of it being the one traditional Japanese room that people will put in their Western-style houses to desperately try to have some sort of connection to their culture and ancestors- it just looks unfinished. It’s like the people who live here decided to give up on decorating and just shoved all their trash in here instead.

This isn’t my home.

I roll over and see my bag and coat set down a few feet from me, and the events of last night start to play through my head like a DVD set on fast-forward. I guess I really did have a horrible fight with my parents, and then I ran off, and…Ayame’s frantic sobs repeat in my mind, over and over again.

I definitely deserve a punch in the mouth for what I did, making her worry like that. She should have hit me. I would have hit me.

But she didn’t. Instead, she threw herself at me, out in public for everyone to see. I can feel my cheeks starting to burn. She does whatever she wants and doesn’t care if it affects others.

But I also can’t stop thinking about how warm she was.

Another thought is running through my head. I know I was half-asleep, but I didn’t dream up Ayame being there. She really did run herself ragged to try and rescue me, and I could swear I had heard her say-

No. For her, that’s pretty much impossible. She has the mind of an eleven-year-old boy in a high school girl’s body. I doubt she has ever seen anyone, much less me, as a member of the opposite sex. I’ve seen the other girls at school start tittering and going weak in the knees about their crushes, but she’s never joined in. She doesn’t speak to the other girls very often, now that I think about it. She’s mainly hanging out with me and Tatsurou. Sure, she makes fun of me all the time, but that’s in the same way siblings mess with each other. There’s nothing romantic about it. If she had known Tatsurou for as long as me, she would do the same thing to him. The only romance she cares about are those weird harem light novels (which she won’t shut up about).

I’m still wearing the clothes I had on last night (except for the shirt that Ayame blew snot all over). I didn’t even change. I guess that would make sense…I roll over and unzip my bag, trying to rummage through it to find a change of clothes. I eventually pull out another set of casual clothes and lay it out. The only things I’ve packed are both my school uniforms, a set of pajamas, one more set of casual clothes, my phone and a charger, ¥18946 (used to be 20000), and that manga Ayame gave me. After a quick stretch, I change out of my dirty outfit for my clean sleeping clothes.

“GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING!” The door to this cluttered room slams open so violently I think I’m being robbed for a second, until my childhood friend appears in the doorframe. I silently thank God, the Buddha, and Ahura Mazda at the same time- a second earlier and she would have barged in on me changing. Not that she would have cared, of course, but I would have.

She smirks, as she tends to do. “You have a good sleep, lazy?”

I quickly take a look at my phone and sigh. “It’s 8:30 in the morning. What part of that is sleeping late?”

“Uhh…” She puts her finger on her chin for a second and looks up at the ceiling, deep in thought. “Doesn’t the super-responsible Haru-kun wake up at 4 AM and exercise until he drops?”

“It’s Saturday. Do you have any idea what a rest day is?”

“Oh yeah…that’s when I get caught up on all the seasonal anime.”

I give another exasperated sigh. Is this what she’s going to do every morning? If it is, I might as well be trapped inside the dating sims she keeps telling me about. They always start with the Childhood Friend character waking the protagonist up…every single one. No points for originality- otaku love comfort and repetition. From everything she’s ever told me about these “harem” things, being the protagonist of one of those would be my personal hell. Then again, in all these games she’s told me about, the “childhood friend” character has always been way less obnoxious than her.

And if she wants to make fun of me for being a lazy bum for not meeting the expectations that she set of me on her own, then she has no room to talk. Her hair’s down and all she has on is a t-shirt and those really short girl gym shorts. She’s not even wearing slippers- just walking around with her bare feet out. I’m not surprised she’s dressed like such a slob.

…Were her legs always that long? Uhh…nonononono. That’s not the issue here.

“Why are you eating a popsicle at 8:30 in the morning?”

“Because it’s my house and I can do that.” She takes a big, crunchy bite.

This doesn’t make sense. She bawled her eyes out last night, but this morning she’s as chipper as ever…which means there’s absolutely nothing attractive about her.

I also realize with some shame that after she offered me a place to stay out of nothing but the goodness of her heart, I nearly lectured her about being slovenly in her own private life. I’m pretty pathetic.

“Fine.” I slowly pull myself to my feet. “I’ll get up if you’re going to stop getting on my case about it.”

I follow my friend downstairs. When we get there, her father is already at the dining table and dressed, sipping coffee. He shoots her a side glance. “Ayame, don’t eat while you walk. Good morning, Kouga-kun.”

“Sorry, Dad.” Crunch.

“Uhh…good morning to you, too, sir…terribly sorry about my imposition on you…” I stammer out.

He smiles kindly. “You said the same thing last night. It’s no problem for me at all. Nice to have some extra hands about the house, especially since Tsubaki is away this weekend. I swear, that woman- she asks me to help her with some errands, and then decides she’s working the entire weekend on her latest contract, so we can’t even go get dinner after we finish…Oh well,” he chuckles. “That’s the life of someone who’s in demand.”

“Oh, come on,” Ayame grumbles. “Mom’s been getting home at midnight this entire week. You ought to make her take a day off.” Crunch.

“I don’t think she’ll pay me any mind,” Ayame’s father replies jovially as he takes a sip of his coffee.

Tetsuya Shiritori is everything my father is not. Despite being in his forties (same as my parents, at least I would guess), he’s still slim and takes care of himself, so he looks more like someone in his late twenties. He’s very nicely dressed, as well. Nice clothes, nice watch, unlike my father’s ratty anime t-shirts- you name it. From what I vaguely remember, he’s a big shot at some publisher in Tokyo. Even just drinking his morning coffee and reading the newspaper, he looks serious and distinguished- fitting for such a cosmopolitan guy. I’m not super familiar with him- even as a kid, it was always Ayame’s mother I dealt with, but he was always very nice to me whenever we ran across each other. I have no idea how on earth he ended up close friends with my father. They seem like they come from different worlds.

If only my dad acted even a little bit like him.

“Speaking of errands, this is one of the things Tsubaki asked me to do…” her father continues. “Can you kids help with cleaning out the guest room and the closet? I would help you, but she also wants me to go grocery shopping, and go to the hardware store, and I don’t know if I’ll be back anytime soon…”

I instantly stand at attention. “Of course, sir! I’d be happy to!” I’m completely in his debt, so I need to do everything I can to make it up to him.

Ayame huffs. “Why didn’t you tell Ryou to do it?”

Mr. Shiritori scratches the back of his head and says with a meek expression, “I asked him to help earlier this morning, but he told me to…uhh…how do I put this…‘buzz off’ and left…”

Ayame seems pretty ticked off as she takes another crunchy bite of her frozen dessert. “You should have forced him to do it. That little brat needs to be good for something.”

“Ayame, your brother just started middle school, I think it’s alright that he have fun every once in a while.”

I see her twitch with annoyance. That’s unusual for her- she usually doesn’t act this way. I don’t ever remember her telling me she had a brother, but, come to think of it, I remember him. Ryou-kun was much younger than the rest of the elementary school neighborhood kids, so he couldn’t really get out and play with us much, but he really wanted to and would get upset when his mother made him stay home. By the time he got old enough to go out on his own, my group of friends had already started growing apart. Poor kid…I haven’t seen him in years. I wonder why Ayame got so mad when her dad brought him up. It’s none of my business, though- it’s their own family matter and I’m an outsider. A very familiar outsider, but an outsider, nonetheless.

Ayame sighs. “Fine, Dad. Please just give him a talking to once in a while. I hate having to do it.”

He nods. “I’ll try my best.”

Onigiri for breakfast isn’t too weird, but what they stuffed it with is. Ham, cheese and mayonnaise are a little bit much for an empty stomach. I feel something gurgling down there. However, this seems to be a normal meal at the Shiritori household, and it’s horrendously rude to tell your generous host that you don’t like the food they’re giving you for free, so I eat it up. Afterwards, her dad bids us goodbye and quickly leaves. I get the feeling that days off are rare for him, and he’s sacrificing it to take care of errands for his wife’s sake. Not only is he responsible, he’s dutiful towards his family as well. I wish my dad had that in him.

I realize that the “guest room” was the cluttered room I was sleeping in when Ayame opens the door to it. Now that I’ve had more time to look at it, I realize that it really is a mess. There are boxes everywhere, filling every corner, cranny, and cavity of the room. I must have been the first guest to use this room in a while, or maybe ever.

I can’t find the right things to say to Ayame. I don’t want to bring up last night and make everything uncomfortable, so I’m silently praying she decides to ease the mood by saying one of her trademark stupid things, but she doesn’t, so we start tidying up the boxes in silence for quite a while.

Finally, she breaks the silence. “I made breakfast, you know. Did you notice?”

“No.” It’s completely out of character for her to have a feminine talent like that…but eating something weird for breakfast is entirely in-character. I should have known that she had something to do with that when I saw it.

With two fairly athletic teenagers working, we manage to get all the clutter cleared out more quickly than expected. Well, I say two working, but in reality it was more me working and Ayame pouting about it.

After we’ve gotten the boxes shoved into the closet, Ayame wipes off her brow like she’s done something to be proud of. “Whew!”

I was about to open my mouth and complain about her acting like she’s worked hard, but then I remember that I’m imposing on her family and she’s putting up with me for no other reason than kindness, so I shut up about it.

We’ve cleaned so much that the “guest room” is truly bare except for the ratty futon that they rolled out for me and my belongings. It looks like a brand-new apartment. As I turn to leave, I notice that the door to the closet is bulging. Well, that won’t do. I have a very good idea just who decided to lazily shove stuff into the closet without organizing it, but I’m not about to take the blame for someone else half-assing it.

“Ayame-” All I need to do is point at the boxes that are hanging halfway out of the closet so that the door won’t close.

“Fine, I’ll fix it,” she grumbles and heads over to the closet to mess with the boxes. At least she’s finally doing something. “Hey, Haru, come help me with these…these are heavier than I thought…uwaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

I hear her yelp and the crash before I turn around. She’s jumped back a few feet, shocked but unharmed, but the room is not. A tower of unimaginably old, yellowing, dusty boxes have crashed to the floor, spilling papers everywhere. One flutters in front of me and I pick it up for a second. It’s a bank statement…from 1996. Why are they still keeping this stuff around?

The first thing out of my mouth is “Are you hurt?”

She shakes her head no.

“Then why did you just cram stuff in the closet like this, dumbass?! Have you ever heard of organizing?!”

Almost instantly, I realize that I’ve shamed the girl who has done me a massive favor, but this time, I feel like it’s justified. All that work I’ve done and now I’m going to have to spend even more time putting the papers back in their boxes.

“Ehehehe…sorry, Haru-kun.”  She taps her head a couple times with a fist.

“Whatever. Let’s just put the stuff back.”

The papers were already packed haphazardly in their boxes, so I see no problem with throwing them back in there. As I finish packing one and taking it to the closet, I see Ayame sitting on the floor, holding one of the pieces of paper that got dropped, staring at it. She isn’t moving.

“Oi. Earth to Ayame.” I wave my hand in front of her face and she jumps.

“Oh, sorry, I zoned out…” She quickly starts to pack again. I only got the briefest glimpse of the paper, but it looked like scribbles to me.

Thankfully, we’re able to get everything sorted and packed properly this time. I admit I just threw some papers in some boxes without knowing if that was really where they were supposed to be, but something tells me they’re not going to be checked for quite a while.

Ayame, sitting on the floor of the empty room near my bag, yawns, stretches, and grins. “You wanna play Sm*sh?”

“Not really.” I’m not a video game person- I used to be, but all kids are. I don’t have much time for them anymore.

“Is that anything to say to the lovely daughter of the family that reached out their hands to help you at your time of greatest need?” Ayame says in the manner of a schoolteacher lecturing a small child. I don’t get her. She has no problem with me yelling at her for not doing chores right, but I don’t want to play games with her and she gets all pissy?

She’s probably not mad at all. She knows I have a weakness for feeling in someone’s debt and is taking advantage of it. Damn it. “Yeah, I’ll play Sm*sh, just don’t expect me to be any good.”

She smiles really smugly. “Don’t worry, my bar is set extremely low! I was expecting nothing from you!”

I’m a little fired up now. She’s probably right, but when someone else is being self-deprecating, you don’t agree with them! When someone says “oh, I’m not very good at X”, the polite response is not “I agree, you definitely are bad at X”...for anyone but Ayame Shiritori.

They say a high school boy visiting a girl’s room for the first time is reaching the pure land. When he gets there, he has become a man. They’re supposed to be pink and pastel, soft and fluffy wonderlands that few of us actually ever get to experience.

Ayame Shiritori’s room is not any of these things. It’s mainly blue and red and full of colors that are so bright they’re practically eye-searing. There’s a massive amount of figures from all those weird pervy VNs or LNs or whatever she likes spread out all over the place. There’s mobile suit kits in various states of building. There’s posters of Anime This and Anime That tacked up on the walls. There’s even a figure that’s a mobile suit and a half-naked girl at the same time.

On one side of the room, there’s a TV with a Swetch connected- it’s purple instead of red and blue (of course she went out of her way to get a rare one), and near her bed there’s a gigantic desktop with multiple monitors glowing every color of the rainbow.

This looks like some nerdy guy’s room. If this is the pure land, then I don’t want to imagine what the freezing hell looks like.

Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in gaming before, but after my so-called friend insulted me, I definitely want to teach her a lesson not to underestimate me!

I get absolutely destroyed. Or bodied (she called it that), or maybe teabagged (she also called it that). 5 stocks to none, Ayame.

After that beatdown, she’s in an even more insufferable mood than usual. “I knew you were bad, but I didn’t expect you to suck this much, Haru-kun! I guess you can say…you got SMASHED!” The ear-piercing laughter that follows her terrible joke is positively unbearable.

First off, it’s not my fault I lost. I don’t play fighting games, and she does. Are you going to say I suck at baseball because I can’t hit a home run off Randy Johnson?

If we continue like this, playing a game that she has far more knowledge in than me, it’s only going to get worse for me- I’m going to keep losing, and she’s going to get more arrogant. I need to turn this around somehow. I quickly scan the collection of games she has stored…and I get a brilliant idea.

“You’re better at Sm*sh than me. We ought to play Malleo Kart.” It’s the perfect strategy. She probably thinks I’m terrible at this game, too, but what she doesn’t know is that I was unbeatable on the last-gen. When I was a kid, I played it almost every night. I was even good with the motion controller that was awful. She’s going to underestimate me, and I’m going to stomp her and wipe that smug grin off her face.

After 5 races, I have not won a single one. Damn it! I knew that things may change a bit between sequels, but this is all wrong! The tracks aren’t how I remember them, the physics are way too slippery, I keep pulling green shells when I’m a mile behind Ayame, I’m not used to the Swetch controller…what is this game?!

“You don’t know how to take shortcuts?” Ayame laughs. “My gosh, Haru, you’re terrible.”

This definitely feels like torture to me. I’m having a girl beat me at something and then rub it in my face. My pride as a man demands I win something, no matter how inconsequential.

7th race. Candy Candy Circuit. Current score Ayame 6, me none. Final lap. She as Loogy has taken a commanding lead. My Jowser is running about a second behind her, but on the final stretch I open up an item box. Blue shell. It’s time. I might be able to win this one. I send it forward, watch it soar through the air on the screen, watch it hone in on her helpless Loogy…

And he pulls out the horn, destroys the blue shell, and Ayame wins number seven. Of all the crappy luck that could have happened to me! The devs made an item that could counter the blue shell?!

Final score: her 16 wins, me none. I hang my head in shame- my spirit has been utterly crushed.

Ayame finally sighs. “This is no fun. I thought you’d at least put up some kind of fight. It feels like I’m picking on a little kid.”

“You have absolutely no right to call anyone else a little kid.”

“I’m young at heart.”

“Your brain’s about 10 years behind your body.”

She stands up and almost immediately the cheerful switch gets turned back on. “Hey, read this! It’s my entry for the Manga Blasters competition!” She shoves a tablet into my face. I feel like I don’t have any choice in this matter.

Like I said, she’s definitely taking advantage of my pride, but I still feel like I owe her, and I have no choice but to read it. I already don’t like reading manga, and I don’t like reading stuff online. It gets especially bad when you’ve got an idiot leering over you like a lion seeing a fresh steak.

After what seems like a century, I finish. “What did you think? What did you think?” Ayame’s excitement is overwhelming.

To be honest, it was pretty bad, but I can’t bring myself to say that out loud. A week ago? I would have said that, no problem. But considering the circumstances…I just can’t. I guess that makes me the idiot here.

“So the Emperor announces that he’s going to enslave the people with the Jewel of Kronor and absorb all their life forces so that he can live forever, and they’re okay with it until the Prince and Sarah show up?” This wasn’t the only plot hole, but I picked the most obvious one.

“I, uhh…explained that, but I had to cut that page for length,” Ayame explains, fidgeting.

“I can’t follow the story and there’s a ton of stuff that isn’t explained and the art looks like a grade schooler’s.”

“Meanie. Don’t read it if you don’t like it.” She punches me in the shoulder, but very gently.

“You asked me to read it, and you asked me what my thoughts were!”

“Forget it.” She yanks the tablet out of my hands. “Read this one! It’s what I’m selling at Comiket this year!”

The cover looks…suggestive. “That better not be porn.”

“Hmm?” She grins. “I bet you’re secretly hoping it is…”

“Absolutely not.”

Something’s growing, Pinocchio,” she says with a satisfied look and her smug smile getting ever wider. I instinctively reach for my lap before I can even think, and feel nothing.

My cheeks start to burn. “Shut up!”

She giggles. “Come check this out,” she says as she points to her computer setup. My cheeks still burning, I take my time getting up and getting over there.

“Why do you have so many monitors?”

“So I can put anime on this screen and another one on that screen.”

“Why’d you feel the need to show me? You know I don’t care about any of that.”

“Because you’re so bad at video games, I feel like you need to see a master at work.”

“You really have a high opinion of yourself.”

“Watch this!” She turns the monitor on and with lightning speed clicks a few buttons before a scrolling shooter game turns on. It looks pretty ordinary, and…swarms of colorful lights fill the screen, projecting in daisy patterns, waves, other symbols, and so on until the screen is nearly filled up with them. At the bottom of the screen, her tiny shrine maiden character flickers back and forth. Is she dodging all of them? That’s actually pretty impressive. I know I would have died within a second.

Soon enough, she dies. “Aaah…” she sighs. “That’s Nanhou for you…” Then she goes right back to playing it. It’s like I’m not even there for her, and it was a bit interesting the first time, but I don’t have any desire to keep watching, so I slip out.

She doesn’t realize I’ve left until a couple hours later, and by that time her dad has come back with a pizza and we’ve already admired the good job she and I (mainly me) did cleaning and are halfway through dinner before she comes stomping down the stairs, fuming that I ignored her. He just laughs at her behavior before mentioning that the bath is ready, if anyone would like to use it. I eagerly accept. I’m not up for another round of Ayame berating me for not wanting to intently watch her one-girl gaming session. Before I get up there, I make sure that there are locks on the doors. Considering the way she’s been acting lately, I wouldn’t put it past her to try to barge in on me, and I’d die of embarrassment if that happened.

As I sit there in the bath, I’m still wondering how much of last night was truly real or just my imagination. There’s no question Ayame came to rescue me, and no question that she was seriously worried, but today she’s just as annoying as ever…maybe more so. She’s got the memory of a goldfish and doesn’t stay mad for very long, but you would think she would show some concern about me today after getting so upset she cried last night.

That’s not entirely true. She has been acting differently, just not in a way I would expect. She’s always enjoyed making fun of me, but it seems…different today. I’m not sure I like it.

Oh well. It’s useless trying to puzzle over her reasons. The only reason she has for her actions is that she’s an airhead who does what she wants.

Having a nice long soak and getting her out of my hair has calmed me, and once I’ve washed off, changed, and left, I head back to my room. Her door is shut and I see lights coming out of it- looks like she’s playing that game again. Good. She’s not going to be bothering me for a while and I can get a nice sleep to wake up early for training tomorrow. I open the door to the guest room and freeze in my tracks.

Sitting on top of the faded green futon is something so unexpected that its bright colors jump out against the dreary white of the room and almost punch me in the face.

It’s a pair of blue-and-white-striped women’s panties, sitting neatly on the top of the futon like it just got out of the laundry and someone had put it there.

My heart is pounding. How did it get there? When I checked the closet with Mr. Shiritori it wasn’t there. That means it had to have gotten there between dinnertime and when I was done using the bath. How many women are in the house? Two: Ayame and Mrs. Shiritori, and her mother isn’t here. Those have to be hers, right? Aren’t shimapan a fetish thing in anime and stuff? I hear my dad talk about them all the time.

The obvious solution is that she put them here while I was in the bath, but why would she do that? Is she pranking me? Am I being watched? Is someone filming me? What if it’s not her, and it’s someone else? Maybe her brother is back, found out I’m here, and put them out to make me look like a pervert in front of my childhood friend? But what motives would he have to do that? I’ve not met him in years!

Occam’s razor has led me to exactly one conclusion. I quickly peek out in the hallway. No one’s watching. Then, I barge into Ayame’s room as unsubtlely as possible. She’s still playing that stupid game and doesn’t even turn around until I yank her headset off. The surprise causes her to lose concentration, and she dies. She turns around immediately and cries, “Hey, Haru-kun, what was that for?!” and stops when she sees my expression.

“Come with me,” I growl, gesturing. She obediently follows. I instantly can tell from her reaction that she’s guilty. See, this is why you listen to your gut instead of your brain. When I get into the guest room, I immediately point it out. “Does this look familiar to you?” I say, like a parent scolding a child.

“I…uhh…” she fidgets. “I thought it would be funny and cheer you up…” She’s such a bad liar that it hurts.

“What part of this is funny? Go pick up your dirty clothes,” I huff.

“They’re not actually mine…I got them from a vending machine in Akiba…”

“That doesn’t make it any better!”

“Sorry, Haru-kun…heheheh…”

“I’m not going to ask you why you did it. Just don’t do it again. It’s really uncomfortable.”

“What is?”

“Stop playing dumb. You. Teasing me like that. That’s uncomfortable. It would be like if my sister started doing that.”

“Oh.” A look of genuine confusion and hurt crosses her face. “Sorry. I really didn’t mean it that way.”

What other way could you mean it? The girl who I’ve been as close as siblings with since we were young doing that could only be taken in one way for me, and I really don’t like it.

“Why are you acting so weird?” Well, weird in a different way than usual.

A silence falls over my room for a few seconds. It feels twenty times longer, and it also feels like an icy wind has been blown over me.

Finally, Ayame breaks the silence. She looks down and fidgets guiltily. “Haru-kun…Did you tell your parents that they were making you uncomfortable, too?”

“Stop changing the subject. This isn’t about them.”

“No, I mean it. I’m glad you told me I was being weird…because if I made you uncomfortable I’ll stop. But did you ever tell your parents that?”

Well, no. I never outright told my parents to their faces that they needed to stop being such annoying freaks until I blew up on them. But considering the way I acted, I figure they could have connected the dots. “No. They had plenty of time to figure it out. They should have noticed.”

“Haru-kun…your parents aren’t psychic. Some people just aren’t good at figuring out what’s upsetting others, and when you don’t say anything…they end up doing something that makes it worse, because they have no idea that they’re the problem. Chisato-san was really worried about you. She kept asking me for help because she knew that you were having some sort of problem, but she just couldn’t figure out what it was and wanted to help you out. But instead, she made it worse, because you just didn’t tell her anything…”

“You knew that she was one of the problems and you didn’t tell her?”

“I’m sorry, Haru-kun. I really am. I assumed there was another reason why you weren’t talking to her and I didn’t want to get in your business. I just wish you would have been honest with your mom and dad. If you ever told them they were annoying you, they would have tried to stop. They’re better people than you think.”

I sigh. “You’re saying that none of this would have happened if I had just said something to them?”

“Well, not really…but kind of…no…yes?”

I breathe out. She really is right this time. For all the time I’ve lived with my parents, I never once said that their behavior was annoying me. I just griped and puffed and assumed they’d figure it out and stop. But the truth is that it might not have been obvious from their perspectives. It could have been a million things that were bothering me, and I guess my mom really wanted to figure out what was wrong and try to cheer me up. Instead, I called her worthless.

Man, I really am pathetic. And it’s especially pathetic to hear it out of the mouth of someone who can’t take a hint, either.

I start to leave. “Haru-kun, where are you going?” Ayame calls.

“I need to think for a few minutes,” I reply. For once, I’m not making an excuse to get away from her. I really do need some time to myself to process this. Out of everything I was doing to express my displeasure, I never saw the forest for the trees the whole time. All I needed to do was be honest.

It’s cool downstairs. There’s probably barley tea in the fridge or something and I desperately need to calm down and start thinking about what to do next. By this time, it’s gotten to be dark and the streetlights have come on.

I pass through the living room on my way there. It’s modern and angular, with gray fabric couches, but there’s a cabinet near the back of the room which looks to be older. Huh. There’s a picture sitting on there. I didn’t notice it before. I move to take a closer look. It may be rude to nose around in other people’s stuff, but I’m a bit curious.

It’s an old, faded photograph that has to have been there for years. Three figures are standing in front of a brick wall, with a hastily-painted banner behind them that says “MEISEI UNIVERSITY MEDIA RESEARCH CIRCLE 1997”. The one on the left is obviously Mr. Shiritori. Despite being dressed in cheaper clothes, he still looks dignified. The man on the right is around the same size with shorter hair, but he’s wearing a plaid shirt and has a dopey grin on his face that looks familiar. In the middle, a good two heads shorter, is a smaller young girl…in a maid outfit…

“I see you found that,” I hear a voice behind me and jump from the shock. Shiritori-san snuck up on me and I didn’t even hear him coming. “Sorry, Kouga-kun, didn’t mean to startle you.”

A thought wells up in my throat. “Can you tell me about my-”

As if he’s read my mind, he cuts me off. “Sure. You might want to take a seat, it’s a long story.”

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy