Love, Manga & Blackmail: A Secret Otaku's Countdown To Romance!
Before I knew what was happening, I found myself sprinting across the sand, entering a dense thicket of vegetation in pursuit of Ichika, who had taken off running.
Her silhouette was visible through the trees as she darted with her head down, narrowly avoiding collisions with the trunks and branches. Leaping over obstacles and maneuvering through the undergrowth, I was determined to catch up to her.
“Ichika! Wait, damn it!”
But of course, she didn’t.
She must have seen me and Sumi and assumed the worst. While her reaction puzzled me, my priority was to clarify the misunderstanding before any strange ideas took root.
As the narrow path ahead opened up amidst the trees, I closed the gap between us.
Ichika slowed down too, removing her glasses and wiping down her eyes furiously.
Just as I was about to approach her cautiously, she slipped on a hidden branch, her balance teetering dangerously as she headed downhill.
I reached out with all I had and grabbed her hand, pulling her up and away from a dangerous fall.
However, her momentum led her to collide with my chest, and both of us tumbled onto the grassy soil.
The both of us grumbled, lying next to each other, faces, clothes and hands full of dirt and mud.
“Are you okay, Ichika?” I looked at her as she propped herself up, turned, and sniffled.
“Yeah… I’m sorry….” She mouthed, struggling to regain her composure.
“You shouldn’t have followed me…” She croacked. “I don’t know why I ran… I shouldn’t have interrupted… I’m sorry…. But when I saw you and Sumi and… I…”
Trying to piece an incoherent sentence together, the blonde girl before me refused to turn around.
With a gentle tug on her shoulder, I turned her to face me.
“I’m sorry too, I’m just glad you’re okay…”
“But… but… I…” She shook her head, “Ah, damnit! I don’t know why I’m crying…”
In her haste to wipe away her tears, she inadvertently smeared more dirt and grime across her cheeks.
“Hey, hey, look at you!” I prevented her from further smudging her face, grasping her hands.
“Ah!” She looked at her dirty palms, realization dawning on her.
“Here.” I fished through her backpack without permission, since it was an emergency, and deftly wiped her face with a freshly washed handkerchief.
“There, all sparkly.” I laughed, as I retreated the cloth away from her and Ichika gestured towards me.
“Thanks.” Her lips curled up, embarrassed at the gesture. Yet she didn’t move away. “Ah, my hands?”
I passed the cloth over to her.
“Hm?” Ichika studied it in her hand, her brows furrowing in puzzlement.
“This is my underwear.”
“Eh, come again?”
Underwear? As in panties? As in…
I shot up from where I sat, and bowed a few times.
“I’m sorry I definitely didn’t want to touch your panties! Let alone wipe something with them! You see it was an emergency and…”
I halted my panicked explanation as Ichika's eye twitched slightly.
And then, true to her signature style, she burst into laughter. Just like always, there was that slight delay before her laughter erupted.
“Hey…” I chuckled too, her laugh was music to my ears. “Come on, come on, we’ve had our fun…” I urged her up, and she took my hand to stand.
“Right, somebody had a little too much fun there…” Ichika’s face beamed, despite her puffy red eyes.
"In terms of falls, between the knee to the face and the tackle at my house, I think this one takes the prize for the messiest..." I commented, grimacing as I examined my dirt-covered clothes. Soil and grime weren't the most pleasant companions if you asked me.
“True, I guess this one is on me too…” Ichika sighed, as her face dropped once more, probably remembering why she ran off in the first place.
“Ah, I’m sorry again… for interrupting.”
There it was, that sad smile again.
“You didn’t interrupt anything…” I shook my head, and almost chuckled at this typical romcom misunderstanding. “…In fact I had just turned down her advances.”
“Turned down? Turned down Sumi?”
Ichika seemed puzzled, as she muttered to herself.
“Yeah, well, I guess it was kinda out of left field…” I scratched my head. Although I couldn’t come out and say it, I knew who my affections lied with.
“I… I see…” Ichika nodded several times, color returning to her face, and spank to her voice.
“Well then! It’s not like I have a say on the matter or anything… you can do whatever you want, I guess!” She smiled to herself, before sighing. “I’m just glad….”
“Now, now! Let’s get back!”
Clapping her hands, she turned on her heel, and made for…
“Huh?” Ichika stopped. The sun had almost set behind the trees, the makeshift trail we had forged was now obscured, and we found ourselves surrounded by thick bushes, tall trees, and sinking mud. The air had grown damp, signaling the approach of rain.
“Hm? hm?” Ichika mused multiple times. “Which way was back again?”
“Ah, Ichika? I think we’re lost.”
The sound of raindrops drumming against leaves, the faint howling of wind through the branches, and the squelching beneath us as the ground turning muddier with each drop didn't bode well. Huddled together beneath a large tree, I clutched a small handheld umbrella, futilely attempting to shield both of us from the rain.
“This sucks.” Ichika voiced, her tone flat and eyes devoid of life.
“Hey, at least we have your… emergency umbrella?” I said, tipping it over.
Water pooled at the umbrella's surface cascaded down onto my arm like a miniature waterfall.
“What did you say?”
“Don’t worry, my shoulder was already getting wet…” I tried to play it off. Yet the fact Ichika’s umbrella was not big enough to shelter both of us, underneath was something very real. And very negative too.
To our dismay, Ichika had even forgotten to grab her shirt from the beach, leaving her clad only in her bikini to endure the rain and wind.
“Here…” I handed her a questionably stained light pink tee. “That’s the best I have on offer…”
It really was.
“But… are you sure?” She eyed me, all shirtless and vulnerable.
“I mean, I’m not shivering…” I chuckled, and caught ahold of her trembling arm. “But you are, so…”
Meekly realizing the truth behind that, Ichika threw my T-shirt over her head. With a slight blush, she then clasped my arm between hers.
"Skin-to-skin contact keeps you warm, right...?" She murmured, her voice barely audible. I could feel the warmth of her skin against mine as she clung to my arm.
I admit this was rather nice. As nice as being stranded in a mysterious patch of forest amidst a downpour could be.
Okay, I retract that. But, Ichika’s touch was the nicest thing amidst a perilous situation, at least there was denying that.
What was I even thinking?
While I failed to reply, Ichika gave a pout.
“It’s not like you’re not used to this type of thing… you damn playboy…”
Why was I getting attacked now?
I scoffed, darkness descending upon the forest, and I turned on the flashlight function on my phone. If we were going to wait out this rain, a source of light was essential.
“While I've had my fair share of romantic encounters in the past, I admit they never lasted long. Partly because I didn't want to become too entangled with any one person. You know, spending time with someone makes you notice every detail, every reaction..."
“I… see...” Ichika clenched her teeth, her forehead pressed against my arm. Was she jealous?
“That’s why I kept my distance, you know? I didn’t want people to see who I was.”
"Yeah. But then a certain blonde tsundere waltzed into my life..."
"Huh?!" Ichika lifted her face, her cheeks tinged pink.
“Yeah… With you, it’s just different. You already know me, after all.”
Her blush deepened, and her grip on my arm loosened.
“You mean that?”
I tried to suppress a small smile but ultimately failed.
“I know dishonest is my trademark… But with you, I feel like another person.”
“Wha… What does that mean?” Ichika gulped.
I wanted to show her.
Show her how much she meant to me.
How much I loved being with her.
How hard I had fallen for my fake girlfriend.
I caught myself, however, before it was too late.
Did I really wanna let go of everything else? Being with Ichika meant… I had to stop lying.
Was I ready?
A raspy, male voice echoed across the greenery, bouncing off the branches.
The voice belonged to none other than Yuuto-san, who stood just a few feet away, wearing a raincoat. Our friends were right behind him, similarly dressed, heaving sighs of relief.
They had found us. But something in Yuuto-san’s expression alarmed me to my core.
Like a parent about to reprimand a child.
Like a stern teacher fed up with misbehaving students.
Like a screenwriter angry with actors who'd skipped rehearsals.
A play, a charade, that was about to end.