Chapter 48:

My Circle's Big Day Is Getting Close.

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

A month later, I'm back at Ayame's home, only this time I'm not alone.

It's July 29. The fateful day where I'm forced to be plunged into otaku hell is about three weeks away, and it's time for us to do the "digital toning", or whatever Ayame called it. I have absolutely no idea what that means, but we have to do it on a computer or tablet, and she's the only one who has that software in the first place, so her house is about the only place we can meet up to do it.

This time, since I'm prepared, I've brought a gift. It's nothing special- just some rice crackers- but they're in a nice box and that's what matters. Strictly speaking, I don't have to, since I've been here before, but the two next to me are visiting for the first time, and I don't want to be the rude one of the bunch.

Suzuran, Takeno-senpai, and I are all standing in front of the Shiritoris' nice-looking, modern house, on the front doorstep. We met up at the bus stop (because Takeno-senpai doesn't have a cell phone and I worry about Suzuran being by herself) and walked all the way here, even though I had to go out of the way to meet them. It's starting to get swelteringly hot. After a quarter kilometer, I'm drenched. Takeno-senpai doesn't look like he minds, but Suzuran's shoulders are also glistening with sweat. I didn't expect Suzuran to be the type of girl that would wear a sundress and a hat, but it looks really cute on her.

One thing I noticed about us three being together is that it's pretty quiet. It's not like that's a bad thing. None of us need to be told that it's hot outside, because we can figure it out. I'm not exactly a fan of small talk, and Takeno-senpai is the kind of person who only talks when he has something that he needs to say, so he asked me a little bit about how training camp was going and then shut up the rest of the way. Apparently Nagase-senpai has constantly been mailing him about how to run it and train us, so even though Takeno-senpai's no longer the captain, it's like he never left. Then again, I feel like Takeno-senpai would still end up writing up a gigantic exercise plan for all of us even if our new captain didn't need help. He clearly enjoys what he does.

Suzuran was quiet the entire time. She said absolutely nothing. That's how she is normally, so I didn't pay that any mind, but I noticed she was always walking next to Takeno-senpai. She was on him like a shadow. I'm not sure what that was all about. It weirded me out a little, but I don't think Takeno-senpai even noticed. Was she trying to have him block the sun for her or something? That's about as much as I could figure out.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing that it was so silent, but I did miss Ayame's chatter. Just the tiniest bit. Like the tiniest amount it's possible to miss something. Don't get me wrong, it's annoying, but hearing her go "So I watched the latest episode of-" and then start a spiel about the latest LN or WN or VN or DN or whatever makes good background noise. You know in those commercials where they show people who live in a smelly apartment and don't realize that it smells because they're used to it, but when they go to a home that doesn't smell, it feels odd because they're used to the stench? That's me, I guess. I'm so used to Ayame running her mouth that it feels odd when she's not there.

The odd thing is that I'm with a group of my friends and it doesn't include her. That's strange. I had never thought about it before now, but whenever we're in a group it's nearly always because of something she did. I can't think of a time when I've actually been on my own with others my own age, except when it’s for club activities.

Is that weird? Well...kinda, I guess.

Neither one of Takeno-senpai or Suzuran really looks like they want to press the doorbell, so I guess I'll do it. I've been here before.


Man, she sure is taking a while.

I think it's been a minute now. We're standing outside in the blazing sun and no one is coming to the door. The panels on the front of the door are frosted glass, so it's not like any of us can see inside.

Did she give us the wrong time? If she did, I'm gonna strangle her.

I guess I ought to try again?

I give Takeno-senpai, standing next to me, a quizzical look while reaching toward the doorbell, and he shrugs his shoulders back at me.


From inside the house comes a muffled cry of "I'm coming already!"

The door creaks open. Ayame's standing there, with her hair messy and down, half-asleep, rubbing her eyes.

"Welcome-" she says as she yawns deeply.

There goes my blood pressure.

She organized this whole thing, so I expected her to at least make the bare minimum effort, and the first part of that is not sleeping through the time that you told us to be here!

Next to me, Suzuran has blushed fully crimson, and Takeno-senpai's eyes have gone wide. What are they so bothered about? Surely it couldn't be-

Ayame's wearing a blue Gondom T-shirt and...

"Put some pants on."

"Ah-" She looks down. Suddenly, she's wide awake and slams the door shut.

Ugh. We're off to a fantastic start. Takeno-senpai's staring off into space next to me, and Suzuran is still bright tomato red.

At least they were white this time and not striped- Oh, shut up, brain, you're making it worse.

In a few seconds, the door opens again. Now she's done up her hair really messily and has got gym shorts on. To be honest, they aren't much longer, and she still looks like a total slob, but at least she's got all her clothes on.

"Honestly, Haru-kun," she gripes as we fling our shoes off in the foyer. "Does it kill you to have a little tact?"

I want to yell DOES IT KILL YOU TO NOT FLASH YOUR CLASSMATES back at her, but Suzuran's still pink, so saying that would probably make her faint. Poor girl. So I just bite my lip and make the most annoyed face I can at my childhood friend.

We're all dressed halfway decently and she looks like she just rolled out of bed. Well, she definitely did.

"Thanks for having us. Wow, this place is nice..." Takeno-senpai mutters as we enter. "My house is traditional."

"I know, right?" Ayame says, beaming like she's the one that bought it. "We've got AC, and central heating when it gets cold."

Now she's just rubbing it in. My home is pretty big and it doesn't have central heating. Neither do 99% of people who live in this country. I'm severely annoyed at her, but the air conditioning feels great. I was dying outside and as soon as she opened the door it was like heaven.

"Ooh, you brought gifts!" Ayame's eyes sparkle.

"My mom baked this castella. I thought you might like to have it," Takeno-senpai replies.

"That looks great!"

"H-here..." Suzuran holds out the box she brought. "I-it's nothing special, but I hope you like it..."

"Cookies!" I can almost see the stars in her eyes. Only she would get that excited over store-bought desserts.

"Hey, you got something too?" She's suddenly over by me and close enough for me to hear her breathe.

"Rice crackers."

She recoils. "Ew. If you're gonna act like an old man at New Year's, at least bring me something good. They taste like cardboard."

"They're not for you, they're for your family!"

"Mom and Dad are at work."

Well, figures.

"Honestly," she sighs, "you guys are way too old-fashioned. You didn't have to all come bearing gifts like you're my new neighbors or something. We're already friends, aren't we?"

"It's called being polite. You should try that sometime."

"You sound like my grandpa. Next you're gonna be saying your back hurts and then something about how kids these days are spoiled because they didn't fight in the war or something like that."

"Shut up, idiot!"

"Hey, calm down..." Takeno-senpai quickly moves in to defuse the situation. "Let's just get to work, okay."

"Good idea, Number Three! My room is this way." Ayame takes off toward the stairs.

Wait, so if her parents are at work, and Ryou-kun is in remedial classes, that means we're alone.

"Hey, Ayame, are we the only ones here-"

As soon as I get to the second floor, my question is immediately answered, and not in a way I expected.

Ayame's little brother, tall, gangly, dyed hair, ear sleeves, and all, is standing right in the middle of the hallway, apparently having just come out of a room, with the biggest deer-in-the-headlights expression I've ever seen. Man, he's huge. He's gotta be at least 180 and he's slouched. There's absolutely no way that he's really twelve. The doctors had to have switched his birth certificate with someone else or something. Mrs. Shiritori is very tall, but both Ayame and her father are just above average, so I have no idea where he got those genes.

As soon as she sees Ryou, Suzuran yelps and shrinks behind Takeno-senpai.

Crap. Ayame’s brother thinks I'm her boyfriend, and he does not like that. I need to break the ice or something- just to do something to get his mind off that.

"Hey, Ryou-kun..."

He looks at me, looks at his sister, looks back at me, looks at Takeno-senpai, looks back at his sister, looks at Suzuran, looks back at me one more time, and then says, "What is this shit, a double date?"

"Ryou! Listen here, you little brat..."

I think I made it worse…

Before Ayame can finish, he pushes his way past her. "Move. I'm getting a drink."

"You better have finished your lessons and your homework!"

"You're not my dad." He's already halfway down the stairs.

"You better get that done! Are you trying to fail or something?!"

Ryou, now at the bottom of the stairs, turns his bleached-blond head back toward us with a blank look. "Like I give a shit. What are they going to do? Kick me out of school?"

Ayame bites her lip in frustration. "You better not make me tell Mom and Dad-" she begins, but Ryou has already disappeared.

Finally, she turns to us, sighing. "He's so rude. Sorry 'bout that, ehehe~"

"Shiritori, who was that?" Takeno-senpai looks positively confused.

"My little brother," Ayame replies. "You know, I wish you'd use my first name already. We've known each other for a while."

"I guess that's fine. Is Ayame-san okay?"

"Totally fine! Thanks, Tora-senpai!"

I'm about to snap at her, once again, and tell her how stupid she is for not realizing that Takeno-senpai hates being called that, but a soft, timid voice cuts me off before I can.

"S-s-s-stop it...he doesn't like that nickname..."

For a second, Ayame freezes, like she's not comprehending what's going on. All five of her brain cells are working very hard.

Then, she giggles and grins. "Sorry, Suzucchi...ehehe..."

Takeno-senpai is also turned around in shock, like he doesn't know what to make of the situation, either. Finally, he says, "Come on, let's put our stuff down."

"My room is the one on the left. I'll be back with some drinks in just a second." Just like that, Ayame disappears down the stairs. I'm actually shocked she remembered you're supposed to make tea for guests.

I'm prepared to enter the Otaku Den, because I've been there before, but Takeno-senpai and Suzuran stop and their jaws drop as soon as we enter. I just flop down on the beanbag chair next to her bed. They still haven't moved...they're just staring in shock. Now I'm a bit concerned.

"Are you two okay?"

Both of them instantly snap out of their daze.

Takeno-senpai slowly takes a seat next to me. "Look at all the merchandise...Full Lead Magician...Peroxide...and all the Gonpla...I wonder how much it cost..."

"S-s-she's got a PC and a the same room..." Suzuran is taken aback.

"Why are you looking so shocked? She spends all her money on dumb stuff."

Some muffled shouting comes from downstairs, and then Ryou comes traipsing back to the second floor, giving us the nastiest stink-eye he can manage when he passes. I just wave back. After a few more seconds, Ayame comes back with the drinks and a small, cheap plastic table for us to sit around. The tea is still in its bottle with the label on it, but she tried.

"So first off, Haru-kun-" she grins a little when she says that- "Check this out."

She hands me her tablet and I absentmindedly scroll through the doujin's pages on it, expecting to see the exact same thing I saw a couple weeks ago. But I don't. Every single mistake I pointed out was no longer there. Don't get me wrong, the artwork still isn't great, but she fixed everything I had an issue with. I pointed out about 60 different things and they're all gone.

"You...fixed this much?"

"Of course! That's why I wanted you to proofread."

I don't get her. She wanted a proofreader, but she got personally offended when I did. Then, she went back and fixed everything anyway.

Girls make no sense.

"How long did it take you?"

"Uh...8 hours? That sounds about right."

"That long?! When you've got all your other stuff to deal with?" Holy crap, I feel terrible. I made her do a bunch of extra work because I was too much of a perfectionist when I was reading the doujin. That's what I was worried about once I realized how anal I had gotten with the red marker. It's easy enough for me to point out mistakes, but it takes a lot of effort for her to fix them. And yet she did it anyway.

"Well...since you stayed up late reading it over during the middle of finals, I feel like I needed to work harder, too."


Soon enough, we get to the actual purpose of this meetup- putting the tones on the artwork. Well, I say we were doing it, but it was mainly Ayame doing it on the tablet while we watched her. I know I don't like otaku stuff, but from purely an art standpoint, it was pretty cool. The different tones are made from patterns of small dots, and by changing their size, you can make a whole range of shades of gray.

"Suzucchi, you wanna try one?" Ayame smiles widely as she sticks the tablet out in Suzuran's direction.

"I-I guess..." Suzuran hesitantly takes it. With a few taps of her finger, Rexy's hair turns from white to a shade of dark gray. I guess that's supposed to be the aquamarine blue it is in color pictures.

"You know, back before technology, you used to have to cut these out with x-acto knives," Ayame says, closing her eyes and holding out her finger with a look of triumph. "It took hours to put them on. If you messed up, you'd have to draw the whole page over again!"

Takeno-senpai's face is blank, because he obviously knows that already since he talked to Ayame about tone sheets at the art supply store, but he politely nods. I don't know what's more insufferable: Ayame acting like normal or Ayame acting like she's smart.

"Ooh, nice choice for the background, Suzucchi! It really brings out the handholding scene. Prez was right, you've definitely got a lot of potential!"

"K-Kakihara-senpai was j-j-just being nice..."

After a couple hours of just sitting around while I watch the girls fiddle with the tablet, Ayame finally shoves it in my face with a big grin. "We're finished! Check it out!"

"Okay." This time, I'm not nitpicking. I'm just looking at it and checking to make sure nothing is obviously wrong.

It's actually...not bad. Well, the artwork is still not good, but the tone selection makes it a bit more bearable on my eyes. I'm surprised by just how much more personality drawings can obtain from a bit of grayscale.

"I don't have any problems with the shading. No drawing outside the lines or anything."

"Well of course you can't draw outside the lines, Baka-Haru. The software makes that impossible."

"Oh, shut up." My cheeks are starting to burn.

Ayame smirks in reply.

"The shading choices weren't bad. They fit the characters, and the times you needed to use them as backgrounds, they were well-integrated." I really didn't know Ayame had it in her. Maybe if her dream doesn't pan out (which it likely won't), she can make a living being the guy that cuts the tones out and pastes them on the paper for the actual artist.

"Well, Suzucchi picked most of them out..." Ayame scratches the back of her head with a giggle. "I'd pick one and she'd go 'no, that one would look better', and it did."

"For real?"

As soon as I look at her, Suzuran blushes and covers her face with her hands.

"I-it's nothing special..." My gosh, she looks like she wants to crawl in a hole. Poor girl.

"I told you Kakihara-senpai thinks you've got a lot of potential!" Ayame crows.

Suzuran curls into a ball. At this point, Takeno-senpai is looking at her with genuine concern.

"Okay. Anyway, since we're done with this, I'll look it over and make a few more revisions, and then. Tora- I mean, Shunsuke-senpai, whoops, haha, can you take care of the printing? I'll email you over the final manuscript with all the information on how to do it. I booked Pochi Pochi in advance, so we're guaranteed to get printed so long as we turn something in, but the deadline is the 31st, so get it to them before then. Can you handle this?"

Takeno-senpai nods. If you already know how the printing process works from beginning to end, I feel like it's easier if you do it yourself, but I guess she wants to give him something to do.

"By the way, just in case something crazy happens, they've already printed 2 more of my doujins I drew back in January and February and they're holding them to deliver to the booth, so we'll have something to sell no matter what. Oh, and next meeting we'll be discussing the booth plans. The space is already booked, so all we need to do is make the decorations."

The fact that people pay money to have these made is really sad. You're starting off in debt before you even sell anything. I guess that's the business model of most publishers, but Ayame's not a publisher- she's selling her hand-drawn Hero Tensei fanfiction for 600 yen a magazine.

She stretches backwards and then flops onto her belly. "I'm sick of all this work. You wanna play Sm*sh?"

"No." I don't even take the time to think about it. She just wants to destroy us so she can get all smug.

"I haven't owned a console since the Wee..." Takeno-senpai mutters, looking slightly concerned.

"I-I-I'm not very good at games..." At least Suzuran isn't curled up into a ball anymore.

"Fine," Ayame says with a disappointed look on her face. "Malleo Party it is."

"I didn't agree to that, either!"

"You know this game's easy enough that even people with no skill can play it?" Ayame looks right at me with a smug grin.

I feel my eyelid twitch. She pushed my buttons again. "You take that back!"

"Prove me wrong." She flips me the controller, still smug.

Once again, Ayame baited me into playing games with her by insulting me, and once again I got stomped. Final score after 30 turns: Ayame, 9 stars, Takeno-senpai, 3, Suzuran, 2, me, 0. I did manage to get a few stars, but Ayame stole every single one of them because she won almost every mini-game and kept going to the ghost and taking them from me when she was already 6 stars in the lead. Then Takeno-senpai ended up with all my coins. Chance Time is a bunch of RIGGED GARBAGE AND IT NEEDS TO BE TAKEN OUT OF THE GAME.

I'm not mad, but all my pride as a man has just disappeared.

As I slump down on the ground, Ayame laughs beside me, having utterly crushed us all. "Nice try, Haru-kun!"

"Why did you only say my name? Takeno-senpai and Suzuran-san were just as bad!"

"Eep! S-sorry..." Once again, Suzuran buries her face in her hands.

"There, there." Ayame pats the other girl on the head, but that just makes her even redder. "You did great for your first try. It's not your fault Haru-kun's a sore loser."

Okay. I see how it is. You're singling me out, and only me. "You're a sore WINNER!"

"That sounds exactly like something a loser would say."

As I shoot a death glare at Ayame, Takeno-senpai interjects. "That was fun, but it's starting to get late. My parents want me home by nine."

"Same here...Onee-chan will be wondering where I've gone..."

"I guess we'll call it a day here," Ayame replies. "Good job, everyone! I'll keep in touch so we can set up the booth logistics. We probably need a couple more meetings before Comiket."

As I get up to leave with Suzuran and Takeno-senpai, I stop.

There's something that's been bothering me this whole day.

I only saw him once or twice, but I wanted to make sure something wasn't going on with Ryou. Ayame said he had remedial classes, but he was here today. I hope it was just her assuming he'd failed when he really hadn't or something...but she yelled at him about doing his "lessons", and he yelled back at her about not caring if he got kicked out of school.

Something doesn't seem right. I hope I'm wrong, but I've not had a good feeling about this.

"Takeno-senpai, two can go ahead."

"Oh? What's this?" Another smirk has formed on Ayame's face. "Did you want some alone time with me? I guess I can't help being so cute- Ow!"

Finger, meet forehead.

As my childhood friend rubs the red spot on her forehead and pouts, I turn back to the other two. "Takeno-senpai, can you walk Suzuran-san to the bus stop?"

Takeno-senpai doesn't hesitate. "Yeah, sure."

Suzuran immediately turns the brightest red I've seen her all day. That's kinda weird. We walked here together, so why would she be embarrassed to go back the same way she came?

Even though she looked like she was about to pass out at the mere suggestion of it, Suzuran leaves with Takeno-senpai, both of them telling us good night as they go.

As soon as they're out of sight, Ayame's voice drops. "Haru-kun, is something bothering you?"

"Why do you think that?"

"I can tell when you're worried about something. We've known each other too long."

Suddenly, a loud sound comes from outside. It sounds like a particularly large raindrop, or maybe a hailstone, but it's not currently raining. "What was that?"

"Probably a stray cat on the roof. They come around here sometimes."

"You have cats? I've never seen them."

"Yeah. One of them looks like Purin. You remember her?"

As soon as she says that, it all comes flooding back. Purin was the Shiritori family's pet tabby cat. When we were little, she was already old, but she loved all of us kids. Me especially. Whenever we went to their house to play, she would rub up against me. A vivid memory pops into my head. I'm nine, and it's summer, and we're all lazing around the Shiritoris' old house. I think we might have been going to the festival that day. I'm there, and Ayame's already dressed up in her yukata, and Takeno-senpai is, too, shaved head, sandals, thick accent, and all, and Kaede's right next to me, watching intently as the cat winds her way around me, purring. Ryou is off in the distance, next to his mom, and there's the girl with glasses and pigtails- gosh, what was her name?- and then there's Mimi-chan, the youngest, staring off into the distance...I wonder what happened to those two. I'll probably never know...but then again, I thought I'd never see Tora-kun again, either-

"Haru-kun, you're spacing out." Ayame's looking at me with concern in her eyes.

"Oh. Sorry. I was thinking about Purin."

"Wasn't she the cutest? I used to get so jealous because she liked you more than me..." Ayame stops and looks up, then back at me. "You ought to tell me what's bothering you. Seriously."

"'s about Ryou-kun...I'm worried about him...Is something going on with him?"

"Huh?! The brat?! Why do you care about him?"

"Because...he's your brother, and that makes him kind of like my family too."

Ayame's eyes widen. "Are you proposing to me?!"

"Shut up, dumbass!"

"Just kidding," she grins. Then her expression becomes downcast. "If you really want to know...close the door."

"Sure." I push it closed with my foot.

"You're right. He is in trouble."

When Ayame's story finishes, I sit there, silent, for what seems like hours, as I try to process what I just heard. That whole thing was crazy. Standing up for the girl he liked, the student council president who orders people to lick the floor, Ryou getting punished for obvious self-defense...the story seems like total fiction, but Ayame's telling it dead seriously. I didn't even know middle schools disciplined students like that...isn't there a law against it? Maybe it's because Shinchou's private, but I've never heard of anything like that ever happening before. But if she was trying to fool me, she would have made a reference to something or other by now. I have no idea what to think.

Finally, I manage to choke out, "I'm relieved he wasn't actually arrested...when you said that I thought he was in serious trouble. But that story's absolutely insane."

"It is big trouble, though..." Ayame replies, crestfallen, "...and I know you probably think I made that story up, but please, just humor me. My parents wouldn't even listen to my brother...and I want to help him, but I can’t think of anything that I can do..."

"No, I believe you. Ryou-kun may act tough, but he's a good kid. He wouldn't hurt someone for no reason."

Ayame's eyes light up. "You really believe him?"

"I believe you. And I want to help him, too."

Suddenly, she turns red. "I'm sorry for putting this all on you right before Comiket...I know you're focused on other things. I just needed to talk to someone about it."

"I asked you about it first."

Ayame sighs deeply. "It would make it so much easier if he told me who the girl he liked is, so we could get her side of the story, but he won't say a word..."

"Maybe I'll talk to him about it."

"If he wouldn't tell me, there's no way he'll tell you."

Yeah, I figured. I realized that was a stupid thing to say as soon as it left my mouth.

"I guess the only person I could really ask is my sister, but they're in different grades so I don’t think she'll be much help. I'm sorry. I wish I could think of something better. Maybe Tatsurou knows someone. I doubt it, though."

"Well, something's better than nothing. Thank you for trying to help him. I mean it." Ayame tries to smile, but doesn't manage a very good one. "Good night, Haru-kun."

"Good night."

As I leave, my mind starts to race. I've really poked my nose where it doesn't belong now. Ayame's family problems are hers and hers alone, and none of my business.

But at the same was upsetting her. And I really hate seeing her upset.

Steward McOy