Chapter 3:

None of us could've predicted this Friday's outcome

My 2D Idol Is My 3D Girlfriend

Three days had passed since I first met Aoki, and despite optimistically looking at it as a budding friendship with our occasional chats, I still couldn't shake the feeling that we were not particularly close. Comparing it to when I met Souma (I think he met me, but moving on), Aoki seemed to keep more of a distance. I don't think that was because of me, but rather because her time was occupied by other friends, leaving me on the sidelines. Maybe I ended up in the "I'm bored at home" category of online friends? Let's be honest, though... That's often how it goes between an introverted boy with a friend or two and an outgoing girl like Aoki.

Luckily for me, the school day finally came to a close. And more importantly, I had no club activities scheduled either. I leisurely prepared to head home, knowing that it was Friday and I had nothing to do that day or the next. No need to hurry to bed, hurray. I was halfway down the staircase between the first and second floors when I heard a voice coming from behind.

"Sasaki!" I turned to find Aoki rushing down the stairs, her ponytail bouncing with each step.

"Hey, Aoki. See y-"

"Are you doing something right now?"

Well, the real answer is "absolutely not", but I didn't even know if that was what she was actually asking anyway. I tilted my head, looking at the girl who stood one step above me. Standing like that she was taller than me.

"No, right?" Ouch. "Let's go to the game center! I invited my cousin too, I think you two will get along."

"Ah... Uhm..." Were the only things resembling words that came out of my mouth. Aoki's lips pursed ever so slightly. "Sure thing, let's go."

She clapped excitedly and pulled out her phone.

"Let me just..." She said while typing, her voice softening to a whisper "...Meet us at the game center in a bit. There!"

Well, now that's a new one... I couldn't help but laugh.

"So you're telling me that you didn't have this planned until literally now?" I asked with a hint of disbelief in my voice.

"Kind of." She giggled and shrugged.

I resisted the urge to facepalm (purely for comedic purposes, to be sure), but I thought it was a bit over-dramatic. We walked side by side, first talking about school. But after a while, it felt as if the atmosphere lightened, as if a heavy cloud hovered over the school building. At that point, we started talking about other things – namely our shared interest in Momo-chan and drawing.

Having a conversation with someone like Aoki was a novel experience. She exuded energy and seemed generally pretty happy. So much so, that at times I felt the need to actively try to lighten my own mood not to bring hers down. She was definitely a person that I could envision myself being friends with in the long run.

That lively conversation didn't find the time it needed for many other topics, as the erratic back and forth from the conversation almost always circled back to what we had in common. Before I knew it, I found myself on a main street from the little corner of Hamamatsu prefecture where I lived. I had probably been there once or twice before, but nevertheless, it felt like exploring. Aoki took the lead, increasing her pace once she spotted the bright lights that she was looking for, with me right behind her. A girl leaning against the wall waved, apparently at us. That became clear once Aoki waved back, indicating that the girl was her cousin.

To be honest, I didn't think much of the girl. If anything, it helped by the fact that it's pretty hard to look unique or show personality when everyone looks more or less the same coming out of a day at school. All I noticed was her short, dark hair that fell just above her shoulders, and that she was a bit shorter than her cousin, who in turn was shorter than me. That's also when I realized that she wore a different school uniform. Of course, she does... Otherwise, we would've met before leaving, duh.

"Hi there. Uhm... I'm Haruto Sasaki."

"Hi!" She spoke so softly that I wondered if they were truly related. "I'm Kaede. Kaede Sakurai."

Well, since they had different family names maybe that's where they got their differences from, too...

"It's been so long since we came here, Kaede! I'm so excited. I'll destroy you mwahaha" Aoki's laugh made me hide my hands inside my pockets out of embarrassment. Thankfully, after a quick look around, no one was staring at us.

"Didn't we come here once after school started?"

Aoki counted the weeks on her fingers.

"Yes, I think it was like a month ago?"

Sakurai sighed and teased Aoki with a light punch on her arm.

"So that's not very long, is it?" She shook her head. "Let's go in!"

It was my first time inside that game center, but that shouldn't be all that surprising considering that I didn't really have a habit of going to begin with. The place wasn't big at all, but it also had a bunch of new machines neatly arranged, with no wasted space. The two girls kept talking about what they wanted to do first, but I decided to go for a look around, just to satisfy my curious mind, while taking some time to look at all the artwork on the machines along the way.

In the end, we ended up ignoring all the new arcade machines and going for the classic: air hockey. To everyone's surprise, including my own, at some point during the games, I was the one being loud and celebrating every goal, and poking fun at Aoki. I didn't do much of that with Sakurai, though, because I was still feeling a bit shy around her.

Ninety minutes had passed when we locked in the scoreboard: Sakurai, myself, and Aoki last.

We all agreed on getting drinks from a vending machine and then sit down on one of the two benches placed under a big, century-old tree. It was at this moment after I sat down that I noticed how my legs were much more tired than I realized while playing. I stretched myself and took a sip of my drink, thinking about how much fun I had on that day that was coming to an end. Such realization was aided by the sun waving goodbye as it neared the horizon. I still had something on my mind, though. What did Aoki mean by "you'll like each other"? As much as I think Sakurai is a fun girl, she's still just a girl from another part of town with nothing that stands out. Not like I have many other friends to compare her to... Uncomfortable with the thought, I straightened my back and took a gulp out of the can.

"Sasaki." Aoki's voice echoed in my head.

"Sasaki...?" She tilted her head forward, trying to get inside my field of view. It worked, as I snapped back to reality.

I looked back at her after a lighthearted apology, casting aside the thoughts of having a possible good friend in Sakurai, who was within arm's reach.

She just laughed it off and continued, excited.

"Show us your sketches!" My mouth opened, one of the few times where jaw-dropping happens in real life. "Come on, Sasaki, it's just us three out here, no one will laugh!"

I looked past Aoki, glancing at Sakurai, who was also expectantly staring at me. "Nowhere to run, Haruto". So I took a deep breath – that got a giggle out of Sakurai – before pulling the school notebook out and handing it to Aoki. She carefully took it off my hands and started flipping the pages, sifting through school notes trying to find every little doodle, then moving on to the last pages with sketches that filled them top to bottom.

I can't deny the fact that I started feeling a little warm inside watching her being so excited about every drawing, pointing them on the paper, and asking for Sakurai's opinion. The situation we were in, my mind still riding the high from the game, myself sitting down with two cool girls watching Friday's sunset... It's one of those times when it all feels much more real than letters on a screen.

"Look at this one!" Aoki said. "See?". I looked over and remembered that it was the same drawing that sparked her curiosity, and the entire conversation about Momo-chan. Looking at Sakurai, it was hard to miss the curiosity sparkling in her eyes. "This is very cute", she replied, looking at me.

"T-thank you." It was one thing getting a hundred likes and online comments. But another completely different getting that much attention face to face. "I like to draw idols." I blushed at the sound of my own voice. That sounded weirder than it did in my head. "Both 2D and 3D, I guess..."

Sakurai nodded and turned the page, revealing a chibi of another idol making a cute pose.

"Oohh, I like this-"

"This is SO cute!" Aoki cut the girl off with her louder tone. "Aahhh." On every other page, she found something that was "so cute", to the point where it made me start doubting if she was being serious. She was, of course, that was just my insecurity.

"Look, another idol!" That was probably the 20th idol drawing that Aoki reacted to. "I really am drawing the same thing over and over, huh" I thought.

Sakurai nodded, her smile mixed with an "ooh" expression. Without saying a word, I was entertained enough to observe the two girls having fun with the notebook. I noticed the way their faces were lit up by the last glimpses of the sun, how the breeze hit their hair, preluding the evening. Aoki looked me in the eyes, causing me to instinctively dodge her curious gaze, blushing a little as I did so.

"Do you see now why I brought you two here?" Aoki's voice echoed in my head. She turned to me. "You draw idols" and sharply turned to the other side towards her cousin, brushing her ponytail on my shoulder as it flung side to side. "And you ARE the idol!" She clapped her hands. This is perfect!"

What is this girl even talking about? Surely I missed something while I was thinking about nothings? Sakurai masterfully dodged us both, looking down at her lap.

"Yuina..." Her voice was still soft, at least compared to her cousin's. The expression on her face darkened, making me even more confused than I'd ever been. "I told you I didn't want you going around telling these things!" I noticed that she raised her voice, but was still comparatively quiet.

Still silent, feeling like something just happened, I furrowed my brows and looked at them, and waited. Then I noticed Aoki's body flinching, and her expression taking a sharp turn from excitement to regret. She remained quiet, and Sakurai spoke instead.

"I'm Momo-chan." Her eyes lingered away for a minute. "But I don't want attention, I don't want people to know. I just want to do my thing..."

This time it was my eyes that lit up in excitement, and I leaned forward to look at her more directly, bypassing Aoki sitting between us.

"Really? That's so cool!"

Sakurai sighed and shook her head.

"Thanks..." She offered me an empathetic smile. It looked as if a bunch of words stormed through her mind, but ended up saying nothing. Rather unfortunate for my infinite curiosity.

"I'm sorry, Kaede. That was completely on me, really... I'll go to the convenience store that I saw earlier and get us something nice to eat, then..." And just like that, Aoki was gone.

The void between us from the missing body was awkward. So I wiggled myself ever so slightly to the center of the bench, a little closer to her. Sakurai giggled and did the same thing, lightening the mood. That wasn't my intention, really, but at that point, I was just glad that it worked.

"I know you didn't want this, but your cousin was so excited when she found out that I liked idols and knew VTubers. She couldn't wait to show me this new up-and-coming celebrity" I dared to play it up for fun. "Momo-chan is in the spotlight!"

She laughed again and shifted her attention back to the notebook.

"Yeah, and do you post your art anywhere? Because Yuina was excited for both of us to meet, so that's what I would've guessed."

"I do, actually, yeah." That's when I started relaxing because I already did this song-and-dance with Aoki days before. "Do you wanna see them?"

She nodded enthusiastically, returning the notebook, and I couldn't help but smile – And then feel a bit shy. As I started showing her the screen of my phone, I could tell both of us felt a little awkward once again, so I moved even closer so Sakurai didn't need to lean in so much. I showed her my Pixel's artist profile first. I started by picking and choosing what to show, but every time she reacted positively I wanted to show her another one, and another one... Before I knew it, the phone was in her hands. Despite knowing that there wasn't anything bad posted in there, it was still a bit scary.

After she returned the phone, I opened Birdie's homepage to show her my other page.

"You have a lot of followers too!" If not for her refreshingly wholesome aura I would've thought she was being sarcastic.

"Yeah, I'm glad that people like what I do. I want to turn it into a job, or something. Maybe work full time on commissions, I'm not sure yet..."

I looked over at my own phone, refreshing my memory on the current follower count: 13,521. Sakurai scrolled through my timeline as we spoke, before realizing that she was probably being too noisy and handing back the phone.

"Me too... Well, kinda." She added. "Even if I can't stream full-time and make enough to support myself in a nice city like this I still want to stream, you know?" She turned to the horizon with a longing smile. "Like, if I can keep growing my stream like this with a school schedule, then I can do the same if I get a part-time job somewhere. It would complement my income, right?"

My head was starting to spin with all that complicated talk.

"That's way more in-depth than what I have personally come up with." Sakurai found that amusing. "But for sure, that sounds lovely. I mean, not too different from my idea... One way to get there is networking!" I raised my voice. "Let me see..." I made sure she could see my Birdie's search bar as I typed it in: M-o-m-o c-h-a-n. It quickly returned a popular profile with a cute avatar and a crazy follower count of 59 thousand. I immediately clicked the "follow" button, as soon as it loaded.

She pouted jokingly, and in exchange pulled out her own phone. She made sure that I would see her following my own profile back – Except that she had already forgotten my username, so she took a peek at the screen of my phone. I laughed at her, and she laughed with me.

And that was the last thing the two of us did that day before Aoki came back and reclaimed her space on the bench and moved the conversation along. It's my suspicion that she wanted to avoid the earlier conversation at all costs, so that's the reason. What she didn't know, however, is that she'd helped me have a pleasant conversation with her cousin, even if at her expense.

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