Chapter 29:

My Childhood Friend Wants Us to Help Her (Or Not).

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

Against my best judgment, on a Saturday afternoon after an extra practice session, I'm headed with my captain toward the family restaurant in the middle of town where the other two members of our "circle" are waiting.

I've never gotten to see Takeno-senpai out of uniform, so I'm kind of shocked that he looks relatively normal. I don't know what I was expecting, though. Some part of me thought he'd walk around in jinbei all the time like those guys in martial arts movies do. I don't know where I got that from. Then again, guys don't really pay attention to fashion unless they're pickup artists or hosts or TakTik influencers (I hate that app) or something like that.

"So where is this place we're meeting again?" my senpai says in his deep, commanding voice as we wait at the crosswalk.

"Down three blocks, take a right. You don't have Googol Maps?"

"I...don't own a cell phone."

"You what? How did Ayame ever get a hold of you?" No, scratch that, how do you even function in modern society without a cell phone? I've never heard of anyone under the age of 70 who doesn't own one. Even elementary school kids own them now.

"She called my home phone."

"How did she get your..."

"My family's dojo's number is on our website."

"Oh. Makes sense." There's one thing that doesn't make sense, though. "Senpai, why are you going along with Ayame's weird scheme? You don't have to. Did she blackmail you or something?"

The crossing light changes and we begin to cross the street. "No, nothing like that," Takeno-senpai replies. "Some of the second-years had said obscene and defamatory things about your girlfriend so I thought it was only right to make it up to her, too."

"She's not my girlfriend."

“You're still just friends?" He looks genuinely confused. "Back when we were young I already thought you two were dating."

I can’t help myself from putting a hand on my forehead. "She's nothing but a pain in the ass. I don't know why you didn't tell her no when she demanded you show up today. Don’t you have a girlfriend or someone to hang out with on a Saturday instead of her?"

Takeno-senpai hesitates. “I…uhh…can’t use that excuse. I’ve never had a girlfriend at all.”

“Huh?” That’s weird. Takeno-senpai is everything girls like, or so I think (I can’t say for sure, I’m not a girl).

“I spent so much time training and helping my parents out that I never really thought about it, and practice and studying for entrance exams and going to cram school doesn’t leave me with any time to go on dates...”

“So if you can’t use that excuse, what’s stopping you from just saying you had practice and couldn’t come or had to teach a class or something?”

"Well, I already agreed to it, so it wouldn't be right to stand her up. Besides, I don't want to dismiss this comic cat thing without having tried it first."

He has no idea what Comiket is. I guess that's what being a Kyushu hick with no cell phone will get you. Even people who aren't into otaku stuff know Comiket, if only vaguely.

"You'll see what it is when we get there. Be on your guard, though. Ayame might try to pull something lewd out on you."

Takeno-senpai stares for a second. "Kouga, you’re assuming I don’t want to be here, but it seems like you’re the one who actually doesn’t, so what’s your reason for going along?"

I gulp. "Extortion."

"Sorry, what?"

"Never mind."

The walk to the restaurant is short from there, with the weather being pleasant for this rainy summer. Gray clouds are blanketing the sky- it must be due to rain again shortly. Hopefully we'll get done in time for me to make it home before it lets loose.

As we enter, the hostess greets us with the familiar refrain, "Welcome! How many in your party?"

"Four total..." I desperately crane my head, looking around to find familiar faces, but see no one. Then, at a far-off table, a ponytailed head pops up above the glass divider with a proud expression. "We're with those two in the back."

"Right this way, sirs," she says, and leads us over to the table where the other half of our circle is waiting.

"Here come the meatheads!" Ayame crows as we take our seats on the other side.

Thanks for your insight, Ms. 302/335 on exams. You are, without a doubt, the stupidest one at this table. I'm 79/335 as of midterms (usually I'm around 125), and I'm not sure about Takeno-senpai, but he's never had to hold the dreaded Sports Team Cram Session, so he's probably around the same. I haven't checked for Suzuran's rank, either, but since she's a bookworm she's probably at the top of the class.

Beside her, Suzuran is nervously fidgeting and looking away. That white top she's wearing looks really good on her, I have to admit. It brings out her chest- no, her eyes, damn it, her eyes.

"Heeeey, Tora-kun," Ayame happily chirps. "You haven't met Suzucchi yet, right?"

"Don't call Takeno-senpai that.” It’s blatantly obvious to everyone with more than 70 IQ that he doesn’t like that nickname. Well, that excludes Ayame

"Sorry. I mean Tora-senpai."

"You completely missed the point."

"Anyways..." Just like that, Ayame ignores me.

Suzuran catches Takeno-senpai's eyes and immediately flushes crimson, stammers and looks away again. "I-I-I-I'm Fuuka Suzuran...c-class's v-v-very nice to meet you..."

Takeno-senpai is a bit taken aback by her reaction, but keeps his cool. "Shunsuke Takeno, class 3-6. Likewise."

Weird. Suzuran didn't act like that when she met me for the first time, but then again, Takeno-senpai is a much more intimidating guy than me, so I guess it's to be expected.

"So anyways, what are we supposed to be doing here?" I’ve really gotta get this thing to the point so we can get it over with- I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to be.

"Good question, Number Two. First off, how far did you get on Hero Tensei?"

"Maybe 2 or 3 chapters? You just gave it to me a couple days ago." I haven't had much time to read with all the extra training and studying I've been needing to do. And honestly, with how far I've gotten in the story, I don't like the main character at all. He seems like a real scumbag. If I met him in real life, I would have beat him up too, like his siblings did before he died.

"Well, that's no haven't even gotten to Ariel-chan yet. I mean, Rexy is okay, and Filfy isn't that bad, but Ariel-chan is the cutest of the bunch."

"What did you expect? I haven't had any free time."

"Keep up with it, okay? You can't edit if you don't know what my doujin is supposed to be about. Speaking of that, here it is. I didn't shade or pattern yet because I wanted to get it looked over first." She reaches into her bag and pulls out a sheaf of papers, handing them to me. "Get it done by next week, 'kay?"

I give her a stony glare. "You know this isn't my first priority, right?"

She mouths "2-5-0-"

"Ugh, fine. I'll get it done."

"So what's my responsibility?" Takeno-senpai asks.

"I was just about to get to that, Number Three!"

What's with the numbers? Are we supposed to be spies or something?

"You're in charge of the booth, which means at Comiket you'll be doing the advertising and being the main point of contact for ringing customers up. Can you handle this?"

"If it's like a fundraiser, yes," Takeno-senpai says, scratching his chin in thought. "I already take payments for classes at my family's dojo, so it shouldn't be a big deal."

"W-what about me?" Suzuran asks hesitantly.

"If you sit at the booth being cute, then lonely men will come by and get persuaded to buy a doujin," Ayame says with a grin. "It's the perfect marketing opportunity!"

That's really…what’s the word? Exploitative. Is Suzuran comfortable with that? She's turned red again.

Our conversation is stopped by the sudden appearance of the waitress. "Excuse me...are you ready to order?"

Oh, right. We got so caught up in doujin chat that we haven't even gotten our drinks yet.

"I know what I want!" Ayame cries.

"I don't," I reply. "Could we have a few more minutes?" Takeno-senpai and Suzuran nod their approval.

"Baka-Haru," Ayame pouts. "Making me wait on my Hamburg steak."

"It's your fault for distracting us."

"I'll go get drinks," Takeno-senpai says, standing up. "What do you guys want?"

"Green tea, cold.”

"" Suzuran stutters.

"Cola!" Ayame cries. I have no idea why she's so excited.

Takeno-senpai leaves and after a few minutes comes back. He got iced coffee, I see. Every single person at this table has an unsweetened drink except for Ayame. Figures. She and my mom both have the palate of six-year-olds.

"So anyways, that's all the procedural stuff." Ayame twirls a thin string of hair around her finger. "Why don’t we go to the art store and pick out some drawing tools and backgrounds, then go to the bookstore to get some ideas about my- I mean our- next project? Oh, and also look for a manga or LN I haven't read yet."

"Wait a minute. If you wanted to go shopping, why did we meet up here?"

"Because I wanted to eat some yummy food, duh."

She' a point.

Western-style spaghetti is really good. My mom doesn't make it at home, so I rarely have many chances to eat it, and even if she did it would probably come out looking like vomit and I would lose my appetite. This one is heavenly, though. Danny's can boil some noodles. I wonder if it's even better in America?

Across the table, Ayame is absolutely destroying her Hamburg steak like a crazed animal, contrasting with Suzuran's dainty salad eating. I'm starting to lose my appetite watching her eat like that...but I've got to finish my plate, since I'm still on the weight gain diet. By this point it feels like I'm shoveling sand down my throat- Ayame's lack of manners disgust me enough that I can't even eat one of my favorite foods. How has she made it through life with manners that bad? Takeno-senpai doesn't seem bothered, though- maybe it's just me who’s got a problem.

After we finish and pay, Ayame cheerfully leads us all down the street to the art supply store. I didn't notice when we were having lunch, since the girls got there before us, but her casual outfit has a lot of leg showing. And cleavage. I'd be super self-conscious if I was her, but I know her well enough to realize she doesn't care. She does have nice legs, though...ugh, why am I focusing on that?

The store is a modern-looking building with multiple stories. There's actually a lot of manga supplies deeper in the store...screens, backgrounds, speech bubbles, all sorts of pens and paper and pencils...not that I would ever consider buying any of this stuff, but it's actually pretty impressive.

Ayame jaunts over to a rack of pencils and x-acto knives, skipping. Takeno-senpai follows her.

"There's a lot to choose from..." Takeno-senpai mutters. "Shiritori, don't you draw on a tablet? Most younger mangaka do, at least in Janp."

"Hmm..." Ayame looks up for a second. "I usually do, but at the club we use paper, and I think you get more experience if you know how to do it the old school way,'s easier for me to sketch it on paper and then finish it up on a computer."

No matter how much you "touch it up", your art still sucks. And why is Takeno-senpai talking about manga drawing like he's an expert?

Suzuran stops by a rack of pattern sheets, bending over to peer at them. "These are cute..." she mutters to herself.

Our "circle meeting" has become my childhood friend's one-girl shopping trip. Ayame leaves the store with some super-expensive art pencils, or whatever they're called. The rest of us don't buy anything. I've always wondered how she gets money to blow on stuff like this or her Gonpla or her massive LN collection. It's not like she has a job.

The next stop is the bookstore right at the entrance to Yagami-dori, which is the smaller shopping street in town (Nakamachi is about twice its size). I can already smell the fishmonger from here. Something's definitely rotting in the sun.

The store is cramped, with bookshelves lining the walls. It looks like a pretty pleasant place, all things considered. However, we're not here for the actual books with literary merit…or at least Ayame's not. The kiddie and nerd stuff is downstairs. We go down a tight staircase and...yup, there it is. Bright colors and simple kanji everywhere. A large poster of a boy in Taisho dress with a scar on his forehead swinging a glowing sword is hanging on the central support pillar.

Ayame stops in her tracks as soon as she sees it. "Ah! Oni Slayer!"

Takeno-senpai, standing next to her, widens his eyes. "You read Oni Slayer too?"

My club captain reads this garbage, too? Are you kidding me?

"Yeah!" Ayame exclaims. "What do you think of it? I think..."

"It's great!" Takeno-senpai says excitedly.

"It’s terrible!" Ayame says at the exact same time.

Their mutual happiness is now replaced with them coldly staring daggers at each other. Suzuran, browsing a bookshelf off to the left, winces. It feels like a bomb just went off in here. I get that Ayame has a right to her own opinions, but it's beyond stupid to piss off a 3rd-degree black belt. Then again, she is stupid. She is very stupid. I’m not really that surprised.

"Shiritori, you better explain yourself," Takeno-senpai growls.

"I mean it's bad! What else do you think I meant?” Ayame and Takeno-senpai’s eyes are still locked onto each other. "It makes absolutely no sense and Kenjiro is whiny and Honitsu is annoying and Jiyuu is the only cool one there, but he never shows up, and the oni are awful villains. I mean, there's one that turns into a TRAIN! Are you kidding me? It's like a bad ShoSho! And this is the manga that gets adapted by UFOplateau with a ridiculous budget? Not Judo Kaigi, not Firefighterz, not Screwdriver Man, but this? Are the people at Janp insane?"

His voice laced with fury, Takeno-senpai responds, and he doesn’t hold back. "It's a beautiful series. Did you even bother to read it? If you did, why didn’t you mention any of the impressive fights? If you think Kenjiro is whiny instead of a pure-hearted guy who does the right thing and fights for what he believes in, you have no soul! His and Kiriko's relationship is the best thing about the whole manga, and his and Honitsu's and his and Ryunosuke's and so on...that final battle where they finally defeat Mudan once and for all was one of the best ones I'd ever seen in any manga! And screw you, the train fight was AWESOME!"

"Heh." Ayame grins with a venom-laced smile. "Of course a shonen reader wouldn't care how bad a story is if the fights look good. Janp readers have to have the worst taste in the world."

Oh, for heavens’ sake, Ayame, you read Janp. I've seen you doing it.

A vein on Takeno-senpai's forehead throbs. "I don't ever want to hear an LN reader say someone has bad taste. A monkey could write an isekai LN. LN readers would buy horse crap if it had pictures of half-naked girls on it."

I thought his accent would come out since Ayame's encroaching on his personal space, but apparently, her insulting his favorite kiddie comic outweighs his issues with women.

"You said WHAT about isekai?!" Ayame's nose-to-nose with Takeno-senpai. You can cut the tension in here with a knife. Crap, I'm going to have to step in, aren't I?

Both of them stare at each other for what seems like hours, then immediately whirl around to the bookshelves to the side. "SUZURAN!" both yell in unison.

Suzuran about jumps out of her own skin, and the manga volume she was skimming through goes flying two meters in the air. "Eek!" She turns to face them with a look of sheer terror.

"What do you think about Oni Slayer?" Takeno-senpai asks forcefully, striding toward her.

"It's awful, isn't it?" Ayame snaps, doing the same thing and trying to push my captain out of the way.

Suzuran goes down in the fetal position. "F-f-forgive me...I h-haven't read it...I mainly r-read romance manga...and w-webnovels..."

I finally have to say something before Suzuran passes out. "Hey. Leave her alone."

A look of shame instantly crosses Takeno-senpai's face. "Oh. Sorry. My apologies, Kouga." He then turns to the girl cowering on the floor. "You too, Suzuran. Sorry I upset you. I got worked up over something stupid..."

He bends over and she immediately goes red and slumps over like she just fainted. Takeno-senpai gives her a worried look.

I expect Ayame to apologize as well, but instead she just gives him a smug look and goes back to browsing manga.

"What was all that for?" I hiss, quickly sliding up next to her.

She gives me a smug smirk back. "What? It's not my fault that big gorilla’s got bad taste- Ow!" She rubs the part of her head where I flicked her with my finger, pouting. Then she immediately starts yammering again. "Ooh, look! New volumes of I Can't Get A Girlfriend In A Dungeon! I'll take those!" Immediately, she skips up the stairs to go purchase her latest LN. She didn't learn any kind of lesson. She's such a scatterbrain that she's probably already forgotten that she was about to destroy a budding friendship over a manga.

After Suzuran has recovered from her near-death experience, she and Takeno-senpai follow us upstairs. Just like the art store, we end up buying nothing. Instead, this entire "circle meeting" ended up being a thinly-veiled excuse for Ayame to do things that she liked, and we ended up dragged along with her.

That said, I can't say that I hated it the entire time, although I could do without the fighting over a kids’ manga magazine.

As we leave the store, the storm clouds have gathered overhead, and are now a solid black. That's not good. It's going to pour in a few minutes. I really need to get home.

"I think we should wrap it up here..." I say once we're out onto the sidewalk.

"Good idea, Number Two. That concludes our very first circle meeting. Looking forward to many more in the future! Come on, Nakamachi Tomodachi...FIGHT!" She pumps her fist in the air. She is the only person in the group doing it. Takeno-senpai and Suzuran just stare at her in confusion. Suzuran looks like she's sick or something.

"Do you guys know anything about cheers?" Ayame puffs up one of her cheeks and turns away, pouting. "When I say 'fight', you're supposed to say 'on'!"

"We're not idols.”

She turns away and pouts. "Fine. Be like that. Stupid." Almost immediately, she turns back around and smiles. "See you later!"

Takeno-senpai and Suzuran say their goodbyes and then get out of there as quickly as they can, going in opposite directions. That just leaves me and my childhood friend. I guess I'm gonna have to walk home with her, like usual.

"We should get going-" Before I can finish, Ayame cuts me off.

"I need to look around inside a bit more. See you later, Haru-kun!" Then she dashes back inside the store.

That was weird. I wonder what she needed to see so badly? Never mind. I push that thought out of my mind. It was probably something completely pointless and stupid. If she stays in there too long and gets rained on when she comes out, it's not my problem. Then again, if I go home without her, is it possible she might get lost on her way home? That's never happened, but she's stupid enough that I wouldn't be surprised if it did one day...maybe the only reason she's never gotten lost on the way to school in the morning is because I go with her? If she comes out reading a new manga or LN she definitely won't be able to make it home, and if it gets ruined by the rain she’ll complain about it for weeks. I guess I should wait for her...

As I'm standing there pondering if I should wait for my friend to get finished or just go back home and leave her to deal with the consequences, I hear a sharp growl from behind me.

"Yo, Kouga. Found you."

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy