Chapter 13:

My Selfishness Needs to Stop.

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

When I enter the classroom on Thursday, it feels like a hush comes over the room. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but it seems like people have been reacting to me differently lately. I think I've seen people turn away and whisper when I pass by, and I'm not sure what that's about if it's not just a fabrication of my guilty mind. I'm at the point where I should have gone home days ago, but I've allowed my shame to build- the more I'm humiliated by the prospect of facing my parents, the more I want to put it off, and the more I put it off the more ashamed I get.

I go to my seat and sling my bag over the chair like usual, then slump down in it. Best not to act like anything's different.

Just like any other day, I'm greeted by a typical friendly face. "Morning, Haru!"

I'm pretty relieved to see Tatsurou- he's helped me maintain a sense of normalcy in these last few days. His boundless optimism is, I hate to say it, the thing that's helping me pretend like everything is okay the most.

He leans down and grins knowingly. "Popular, aren't you?"

"...What do you mean by that?"

"If I told you, it'd be a waste. Go eavesdrop and you might hear something good."

"Stop being cryptic. I'm not in the mood."

He deftly changes the subject. "Where's Ayappi? Morning practice run long or something?"

"Beats me. I'm not her keeper."

As if he read my mind or correctly guessed that I'm really not enthusiastic to talk about my friend, he switches the subject again. The last few days around her have felt...weird. Sure, I'm still living with her, and she's acting like her usual self, and I'm trying to do the same thing, but something about our relationship feels new and uncomfortable. I've seen so many new sides of her in the past week- more than I ever knew were possible. Something doesn’t feel right when she goes back to being the empty-headed girl I've known for years.

Silently, I curse myself- did I really just think she could never feel sadness, or anger?

"Hey, by the way, Miyama invited me to karaoke after practice today." I've focused back in on the tail end of Tatsurou's long, rambling train of thought. "I asked him about you, but he said you might be focused on 'other things'..."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Don't worry about it!" He waves his hand. "I wish those guys would give you a chance every now and again. You're not that bad a guy once someone gets to know you."

"I really don't mind." Sure, karaoke with friends is a pretty normal high school boy thing to do, and any other day it would have ticked me off, but I have too much on my mind right now.

"Gotcha. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I'll hang out with you after school some other time."

"I wish, but I've kinda got some stuff to deal with right now." That's half true and half a lie. I really am busy, but I'm also deflecting because if I was to go out with friends after school, eventually they'd want to come over, and then they'd meet...Enough with that. I haven't even asked them to forgive me yet. I don't want to think about them right now.

"You're always busy, Haru-"

"DEADLEG!" My childhood friend comes flying in from out of absolutely nowhere with her knee aimed squarely at the back of Tatsurou's, but he sidesteps and she hits nothing but the desk. After hopping around in pain, she finally glares at Tatsu, but she can only hold it for a millisecond before giggling. "I’ll get you one day!"

She's clearly come all the way from morning practice- her hair is still a little wet, like she hasn't even toweled off all the way yet.

A few of my classmates have stopped their conversations and are looking straight at the three of us. That's weird. She acts like this all the time, and most of the time they ignore her. Maybe something really is up.

"You can try," Tatsurou grins, "but you'll never get past the reflexes of a brown belt!"

Both of them break out into laughter. It's just another normal day in 1-1.

"Hey Haru-kun, how'd you rate my sneak attack?" She bends down and peers closely into my eyes. That habit of hers is really uncomfortable. Almost as a reflex, I avert my gaze.

"0/10 because you failed." I lay my head back down on my desk.

"Huh?" There's fire in her eyes now. "You feel the need to say that about my ultimate attack?"

"If that's your ultimate attack, what's your regular one?"

"This!" And before I react, she playfully punches me in the shoulder. I didn't even see it coming.

" 'You suck because you missed.' " She's doing that awful monotone impression of me again. " 'The Shining Dagger is an awful name.' You got hit by it, loser! Ahahahaha!"

I huff. The only thing worse than her impression of me is the way she puts words in my mouth. I didn't even know she called it the Shining Dagger or the Glittery Sword or whatever stupid chuuni name she came up with.

Tatsurou laughs. "You two really are close. I'm jealous."

What part of this would any normal person be envious of?

Then again, if only he knew...

I can barely focus on the day's classes. It's been this way for the past several days, where it's been like a blur and all I can think about is my family and how I need to go back, but I can't, and then I feel worse.

Oh well, I'll put it off until after practice. Maybe running a few hot laps will clear my head this time. It hasn't worked all week, but maybe this time's the charm?

It doesn’t. I ended up tripping on the warmup jog around the school and I had to wall squat until my legs gave out while the second-years laughed and Takeno-senpai bellowed about this being what a lack of commitment will get you. In the back of my mind, I knew something like this would happen…I can’t even focus on practice at all. Still, did the captain really have to go that far in making an example out of me? Again?

Is he trying to demoralize me so much I'll quit? Why did he tell me to quit in the first place? He's had it out for me ever since I joined and I still have gotten no closer to figuring out what his problem is with me. I'm not going to let him beat me, though. That's my pride talking- but it's also my determination. I'm going to prove to Captain that I'm not a quitter and I have what it takes and I'll pass his test.

I'll get to that as soon as I get an ice pack on my legs, because right now they're so sore that I can barely walk. I'm just hobbling along like an old man.

Ayame, who's walking beside me on the way home like usual, is not sweaty or sore at all, and is clearly taking notice of the fact that it's painful for me to take a step. "What's wrong, Haru-kun?"

"Practice. I had to wall squat until I dropped."

"That's awful!" Her brow furrows.

"No, I think it's pretty typical sports team things."

"I don't think so," she says, puzzled. "I've never seen anyone in the track team have to do stuff like that."

"That's because you're a girl, and girls do things differently."

"I think you're getting bullied, Haru-kun. Why do you have to be so stubborn?"

"I'm really not. I can take it."

This exchange does appear to make her a little upset, but she lays off and her mind flips a switch to something completely different and she starts chattering about some light novel she's read recently. I don't want it to seem like I'm a whiner- guys complaining to girls about their lives is bad enough, and I've already burdened her enough this week without adding another problem into the mix. The issue with the karate team is a problem I can handle myself. I have to endure, and I’ll earn their respect.


My mind immediately flashes with the thought of my family home, dark and empty. What is my father doing at the moment? My mother? My little sister? They're having to endure something that makes my problem look like nothing- and I'm making it worse because I'm too ashamed to face them.

We reach the house that I've been staying as a guest in for the past week, and I reflexively say as I enter, "I'm home-"

Then I freeze.

This house is a nice house, and it's a warm house, but it's not mine. It belongs to Ayame and her family.

The pale white room is not my room. The faded green futon is not my bed.

It's time for me to stop running.

I'm up the stairs in a flash, grabbing my clothes and belongings and stuffing my bag full. It takes a few seconds for Ayame to follow me. "Haru-kun, you wanna play GrazGreen- Huh? You're leaving?"

By that point, my belongings are already packed, and as I shove my wallet in my back pocket, I remember that I need to do something for her. She and her family have let me be a guest for almost a week and I deserved none of it. I wish I would have gotten to apologize to her dad, too, or her mom- but neither of them are here right now. I promise I'll write them a note on the way out.

Bowing deeply hurts so bad when my legs are this sore, but I'm dealing with it. I hold out every last bit of cash I have. "You and your family have done me more of a favor than I could ever repay by letting me be your guest. I ran away from my parents for no other reason but my selfishness and you gave me a place to stay. I know that this isn't nearly enough to pay you back, but take this."

The money isn't leaving my hands. I stay bowed for a few seconds, but then, quizzically, I look up. Ayame is just standing there. "I can’t accept your money. You’ve already paid me back, more than enough."

"I have?"

"Every stupid thing I wanted to do, you went along with it. I've had more fun having you around to play games with me these past few days than I've had in who knows when. Even though you never beat me and you got frustrated, you still played them with me anyways. You read my manga and doujins and told me what you thought even though I knew you didn't want to read them. My dad loved having you around, and my mom- well, if she was home, I bet she would have, also. I don't want you to owe me, Haru-kun. I want you to be happy. If you made up with your parents then I know it would make all of you happy, and it would make me happy, too."

I’m standing there in shock. Are these words really coming out of the mouth of such a scatterbrained otaku?

Her voice drops in volume, and she fidgets a bit. "I'd be lying if a little part of me didn't want you to stay here with me, but- I can't be selfish, not when you're trying so hard not to be."

I'm a little taken aback by how candid she is, but I have enough in me to respond. "You don't know how much you've done for me. Thank you."

She smiles gently. "You're welcome here anytime." Then, as I throw my bag over my shoulder, I hear her say with a slight break in her voice, "See you tomorrow, Haruto."

She's just called me without any honorific, once again.

I walk down the neatly-carpeted stairs, leave a note thanking Tetsuya and Tsubaki Shiritori for their gracious hosting, and leave the house, once again, to their family.

Now that I still have the money, I feel like I'm obligated to use it to get something as an apology gift for my family. Sure, a gift is not going to make up for the problems I've caused, but...maybe it will get me grounded for less time. I can only hope.

What's good enough for all of them? My dad, my mom, and my sister? Fruit? No, that's out of the question, I'm not an old man bringing a housewarming gift. And it's likely the department stores are either closed or they'd be out of my price range.

My parents would both love otaku merchandise, but Kaede wouldn't. And I think giving them anime figures would give them the wrong impression of how much of their behavior I'm willing to tolerate from now on.

Clothing? What do they even like? My dad has worn the same ratty idol shirts for years, and my mom wears cosplay more than she does normal clothes! How am I supposed to figure out what looks good on them? That's a girl thing, not a guy thing. And an older brother buying clothing for his younger sister is creepy.

A voice suddenly pops into my head- it’s the student council president. We’ve moved to the East Mall, but you can come visit the bakery anytime!

That's it. The stuff they made was really good, and it's something that has sentimental value for all of us. It's not going to break the bank, and I can get one for each of my family members, and no one's going to have a problem with it. I think.

The train ride to the East Mall is heaven for my aching quads. Since it's about seven, the commuter traffic has died down, and I'm able to find myself a seat pretty easily. The old train lurches to life, and the canned voice plays over the speaker as it moves. The next stop is Minami-Funabashi...Change here for the Keiyo Line…It's pretty comforting.

There are some other high school students on the train- I recognize some of the uniforms as being from Higashi-Funabashi and from Seiran and from Kawara- public and private schools both. Shinchoushi's pastel plaid is the most distinctive of the bunch, but the other students pay me absolutely no mind.

One stop before the mall, I think I see a flash of pale blue and green- another Shinchoushi student? I can't tell...the train's starting to get crowded. Well, it's not surprising that I’d see another student here. My classmates come from all over- a lot are local, but some are from Narita, some are from Kashiwa, some are from Chiba City, and some even live in Tokyo.

The East Mall is built on top of a train station. No- the mall and the station are one and the same. It takes only a short escalator ride and I’m spit out into the middle of a shopping plaza large enough and bright enough that it hurts my eyes.

Right in front of me is the map. Patisserie Suzu, Patisserie Suzu...I must be mumbling this out loud, because I see a woman walking by give me a bit of a look before going about her business.

Third floor. Man, my quads are REALLY not going to like this. Suck it up, Haruto.

Conveniently for me, most of the walk to the shop consists of escalators. I'm stuck between what appears to be a mom and her daughter behind me, and a young couple in front of me, seemingly oblivious to the world around them because they're so caught up in each other. Meanwhile I'm a high school boy still in uniform, visiting a shopping center by myself, and about to visit a bakery by myself. These are classic date spots, and I'm going alone.

I bet I look pretty sad, don't I? I won't disagree if you say yes.

The store is red with a white, Western-style facade with the name of the shop printed on it in romaji in gold. They were clearly trying to make it look like a European corner shop, and I might have been fooled if it wasn't in the middle of a mall with a household goods store on one side and a Unaclo on the other. I don't remember the original bakery on the shopping street looking this good- they must have spruced it up when they moved.

As I enter and the doorbell rings, I'm instantly taken back to my childhood. It's the same aroma- that of freshly-baked bread, which is enveloping me completely. There's rows of pastries in a kaleidoscope of colors behind glass- yellow and orange and brown and red and decorated with every kind of fruit and frosting. I feel like I can hear the buzz of the shopping street from outside and my friends' excitement as they debate what sugary treat to get.

I look for the kind man behind the counter…and I don't see him there. There’s only a few bored-looking teenage girls. This is not Nakamachi Street, it's the mall. I'm not six, I'm sixteen. I'm here to buy something for my family.

"Welcome!" the girl behind the counter chirps, noticing me. "It's Trifle Thursday! Half off!" She points to a dessert in a glass. It's got what looks like cake layers, then I think that's pudding, and it's topped with strawberries...I don’t like sweet stuff but that still looks really good. It’s like a work of art in a cup. "We have the traditional English Trifle flavor, the Chocolate Lovers flavor, and a Green Tea flavor for a Japanese twist! Can I interest you in one?"

They all look amazing, but I'm not sure that's really what my parents would want. I really don't have any clue even what people in their general age demographics order from here. What if I get the tiramisu, and my mom hates coffee or something? That would make a bad situation worse.

There is one person who might know, but I'm not sure if she’s here at this hour, or even if she works here anymore, but it’s worth a try. "Is Reika Suzuran here?"

The girl at the counter immediately jumps to attention and scurries off, poking her head behind the curtains to the back. "Reika-senpai! Someone's here for you!"

The red curtain flutters, and out walks the affable student council president. She's a lot older now, and her hair is longer and I’m pretty sure she dyes it, and she's got more of a tan, but when she darts out from the back, for just a moment, I see the energetic little girl with the red uniform and white bandana from my childhood.

"Geez, you need to start filling these orders by yourself-" she gripes, then sees me and her attitude immediately does a 180! "Kouga! Took ya a little bit, but did ya finally get a hankering for our fine desserts, or what?" She takes a long, sweeping look over me. “Can I use your first name? It’s kinda weird calling you Kouga since we’re old friends.”

It’s debatable how close we really were back then, but I nod. “That’s fine.”

"Let me guess, you broke up with Shiritori? Sorry to hear that, but love can be cruel sometimes. Now, the number one way that high school boys who have had their hearts broken drown their sorrows is with one of our chocolate-covered almond biscottis and a cappuccino, so will that be it?"

"Huh?!" That came out of nowhere, and I can feel my cheeks flushing because I didn't expect her to come out and say something like that. "We're not dating! We've never been dating!"

Reika smirks. "Really? Doesn't look like that to me."

"I'm telling the truth! Why do you care if some first-years are dating or not, anyways? Don't you have paperwork to do and entrance exams to study for instead?"

"I'm responsible for the entire student body," she says, as naturally as she breathes. "I need to know about everyone's problems so I can help them the best I can. You, and Rina, and Shiritori, and your other friend Aikawa, and Miyama, and Tachibana and Kinozawa and Saihara and Tanikaze and Hiura and everyone else in your class- if they need my help, I need to be prepared."

That's actually really impressive, if you think about it. She's a third year with a massive amount of responsibility and yet she's talking about my lowly class like she's close friends with each of us.

No, hold on. There's a bigger issue here. "You haven't answered my question...why do you think we’re dating..."

She stops me with a chuckle. "I'm sorry, Haruto-kun. I knew enough to know you weren't. It was too good to resist, though. Almost everyone thinks you are."

"Huh? Why?"

"You hang around each other all the time. If someone saw that, what do you think he would think about your relationship?"

...She's got a point. Until this hypothetical person sees Ayame do something stupid and me be sarcastic with her. Or maybe that would make him think we’re dating even more…

"Uh, isn't it against school rules for students to have part-time jobs?"

"Who are you gonna report me to? Myself?"

I take a breath. "Forget it. I'm not here to get something for Ayame- eh- uh- Shiritori-san, I mean. I need something for each of my family members."

"That would be a gift box..." She gives me a sweeping look up and down again. "Let me guess, you had a fight?"

Bingo. "How did you..."

"Body language, for one. You look troubled. When someone comes in here alone, looking like they have something else on their mind, it usually means relationship trouble. I don't just mean girlfriends and boyfriends. I've seen friendships needing to be mended, wanting to impress coworkers, you name it. I thought it was Shiritori at first, but when you said it was your family I figured you were on the rocks with them."

"...You read me like a book." That's a scary talent. I really don't want to get on her bad side.

"That's my job. You elected me to help you, and I'm going to make sure I do. Even if it's outside the school.”

“I didn’t elect you…you were already president when I entered school…”

“But you would have if you could have! Now, let me think- you have a sister, right? Oh, I remember her. Kaede-chan. She was super cute the way she'd hide behind you when I asked her what she wanted. She reminded me of Fuu-chan."

"How is your memory that good? I can barely remember what I had for breakfast."

"I drink a lot of water."


"How old is she, again?"


Her eyes light up. "Perfect! I've got something that's super popular among middle school girls. Mille-feuille!" She points to a delicate dessert with a brown-and-white pattern on the top. "Alternating layers of puff pastry and whipped cream, topped with chocolate. It's a decadent dessert, but it's small and so light that girls who are trying to watch their weight love it."

"You're the expert here...I guess I'll get that."

"How about your father? I don't think I ever met him but once. It was when he came to watch one of my concerts. He bought a couple of my CDs."

"Well, he's a big guy, so I don't think he'll be concerned about calories, but getting your own father a fluffy frou-frou dessert is weird..."

"Then how about this?" She goes over to a deep brown cake with red layers streaking through it. "It's our Black Forest gâteau! It's rich chocolate with cherry filling, but classy enough so that men won't be embarrassed eating it. I see dads who come here with their daughters get it all the time."

"Sure, go ahead."

"Okay, and what about your mom? Let me think...Oh! The really small, youthful woman who made my costume that one time! I never did thank her for her help before we moved here...what does she like again?"

"She's got the palate of a small child."

"Hmm..." The president scratches her chin, then immediately comes to a realization. "I've got something perfect for her."

The pastry she leads me over to is a massive roll cake with splotches of green and blue and yellow and other colors of icing spread out on it like a child's finger painting session, covered with an obscene amount of sprinkles. The filling is just as nuclearly multi-colored as the outside. I think I'm getting diabetes just by looking at it.

Reika Suzuran looks proud of this monstrosity. "This is my idea- the Zeroranger Swiss Roll! Filled with six types of fruit to reflect the synchronicity of Team Zero and covered with their signature colors, this is a hit among the young and the young at heart alike!"

"That looks absolutely disgusting. I'll take three of them."

"Thanks for your business!"

"Now, will that be all for you?"

"One more thing." I know I don't really like sweets much, but ever since I walked in this place and smelled all the bread and pastries baking, I'd been craving one specific type in particular.

"One for your cousin?"

"I don't have any cousins. Pain au chocolat. That one's for me."

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy