Chapter 73:

My Crush is Great at Finding Out My Secrets.

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

This still doesn't feel real. I've been friends with Ayappi for four months, and Haru's known her her whole life. I thought I never had a chance with her. She doesn't exactly make it a secret that she likes him. Or so I thought. I'm not sure if he sees her as anything other than an annoying sibling or if he actually likes her back, but I thought it was as clear as day that she had a crush on him.

And yet here she is, asking me to hang out with her. Not with Haru. Us two, by ourselves.

Was I wrong the whole time?

Did I ever have to compete with Haru for her at all?

Ever since I met them both, I thought I was a side character in their story. You know the one. The only other named male character in a harem manga besides the protagonist that just exists so he can set the protagonist up with all the girls. I thought I was that person. It didn't matter that I liked Ayappi. I was a side character in her and Haru's love story. I had no chance.

Or so I thought.

Maybe I was the hero all along?

Or maybe...even though she called this a date, it ends up being just friends hanging out? What if she still likes Haru that way?

God, I'm such a jealous loser. If Haru was able to read minds, he would hate me.

As school lets out for the day, I'm waiting at the front gate, looking back over my shoulder every few seconds, but I don't see anyone coming. Figures. I bet I look like one of those deadbeats who doesn't have club activities.

I sigh as I slump against the brick post that forms one half of the entrance to our campus. I've been here about ten minutes and there's still no sign of Ayappi. Before long, one of the teachers will probably come around and ask me what I'm doing, and then they'll figure out that I'm skipping karate practice. Man, I'm ditching for nothing. I told Haru a really obvious lie when school let out and said I'd catch up to him later, and I knew he could tell it was a lie because he raised an eyebrow and cocked his head a little bit, but he didn't say anything. He just left.

I'm doing all of this for no reason at all. Ayappi is probably doing club activities right now. She just asked me to hang out to cheer me up. She wasn't actually going to follow up on her words. Heck, maybe she's already forgotten she asked me. She never messaged me like she said she would.

I was stressing so much trying to plan this date...I stayed up thinking about where to take her and what she'd like, and it's all gonna be-


A pair of pointed fingers suddenly shove into my side, right below my ribs. Try as I might, I can't help shrieking. It feels like my heart's jumped two meters out of my chest.

I whirl around to see who was messing with me and there she is, framed by the gates to our campus, the cobblestone walkway that leads to the school buildings stretching out behind her, lined with a cluster of trees on either side, the afternoon sun shining gently through the deep green maple leaves. It's a beautiful early August afternoon, and our campus is one of the most scenic in Japan...but she's prettier than any of her surroundings.

It's not like she's particularly fashionable- her uniform's sort of messy and her shirt's wrinkled and her socks are rolled up and she's not got any makeup on or anything, but she's the cutest girl I've ever seen.

Her big eyes open wide and she giggles. "You screamed like a girl!"

"Don't sneak up on people like that..."

"What? I do it to Haru-kun all the time." She shrugs.

She tries but she doesn't succeed. And she usually gets smacked for her trouble. Haru's reflexes are insane.

"Should I call you Fraidy-Tat from now on?" She snorts, not trying very hard to hide the laughter she's having at my expense.

"Please don't..."

I'll admit, most people wouldn't find this behavior very endearing. Particularly not Haru. Especially not Haru. And yet I'm completely powerless against her.

"Just kidding. Did you wait long?"

"Not really," I reply nervously, trying not to look uncool in front of my crush.

"Don't tell anyone..." In a second, she's right next to me, leaning over toward my ear. A whiff of coconut scent...and then orange...fills the air. She smells so nice.

Aw, crap, my face is on fire. Please don't let her notice...please don't let her notice...

All her weight is pressing up against my right arm...and two very soft, bouncy objects have nestled themselves on either side of it...

"...I'm skipping MRC today."

She whispered that. Oh my God. If I was 40 years older I would have had a heart attack and died right in front of the school. Then again, if I was 40 years older and hanging outside the front gates of a high school, people would think I'm a predator, and they'd be right, but that's neither here nor there.

Suddenly, the weight releases off my shoulder, and she jumps back and grins. "You can keep a secret, can't you?"

Trying desperately to calm my spinning head, I blurt out, "Yeah...I'm skipping karate today, too..."

"Ooh, cool! It's like criminals making a blood pact! If one of us goes down, we all go down!" Her eyes sparkle. "Come on, let's get out of here before the teachers catch us...or the roving Disciplinary Committee members whose job is to enforce student order catch us and then throw us in the secret holding cell located under the club building for violating public order...and then our parents' jobs transfer us to Vietnam..."

"I'm not sure those actually exist."

"Race ya to the corner!" She takes off down the sidewalk.

I can't turn down that kind of challenge.

Thirty seconds later, I'm gasping for breath with my hands on my knees. She beat me by about ten meters. It wasn't close. And she looks like she hasn't even broken a sweat while I'm panting like a dog.

What a great way to start off a date.

Still bouncing on her toes, she peers around before cocking her head back towards me, stretching with a satisfied expression on her face. "That should buy us some time from the Disciplinary Committee shock troops..." She takes a long look at me while I'm still pathetically doubled over, trying to catch my breath. "I thought you were supposed to be in shape?"

"I know martial arts, not running..." I choke out between breaths. "And I already told you the 'Disciplinary Committee shock troops' don't exist." I've never seen the Disciplinary Committee do anything other than public service. It's not like Shinchoushi has a chronic delinquent problem.

"Do you have proof they don't exist?"

"How am I supposed to prove that?"

"Then you can't say they don't exist!"

"That's not how that works..." I'm still trying to catch my breath.

"Yes it is! It's called a devil's proof. I learned about it in a VN and now I see it online all the time. It's the easiest way to start a flamewar! Get it?" She starts giggling.

Her joke wasn't funny, but I muster up a slight chuckle. I don't want to upset her. This has already started off poorly enough.

"You can't prove that the Disciplinary Committee has a secret underground cell where they lock rule-breakers up, but you also can't disprove it, so I assume it works that way." She looks around, hopping between one foot and the other. "It makes life more fun. I told Haru-kun that there was no way to prove you couldn't be reincarnated as the only survivor of a clan of tree elves with the greatest magical power known to the gods and save the world while having a bunch of cute girls with big boobs fall in love with you and he called me stupid. He's such a downer."

He was right, but Ayappi's so earnest that it makes you want to agree with her. Or maybe I want to agree with her because she's cute. Everything about her is cute. Her motormouth- cute. Her love of nerdy things- really cute. The way she can't sit still- adorable. But the cutest thing about her is the way she looks at the world. I know Haru thinks she's immature, and she probably is. But there's nothing wrong with that.

I wish I could be like her, enjoying life with all my passion instead of having to grow up too fast.


Whoa, she's close. It takes all my effort to stop from shrinking back as she stares into my eyes.


"Isn't Haru-kun such a stick in the mud?"

"Haha, yeah...but that's just kinda the way he is."

She stretches again, arching her back as she pushes her hands above her head. "We better get going. If Tora-senpai catches you skipping karate I bet he'll go 'you are already dead' and then you'll explode into a pile of, he would go 'you's gonna be dyin' in a right quick minute'-"

"Who's Tora-senpai?"

As we start to walk toward the town center, she cocks her head, looking at me with a quizzical expression. "Huh? Isn't that obvious?"

"There's no one on the team called that."

"You know, the tall senior? Short hair, jacked like an 80s shonen protagonist. He's got the worst taste in manga I've ever seen, though. And sometimes he speaks with an accent and it's really funny."

Wait a minute. "You're not talking about Takeno-senpai, are you?"

"Oh, right...I forgot he doesn't like to be called that...but we're childhood friends and he's also a trusted member of our circle, so who cares?"

"You're what? I had no idea you knew each other..." Ayappi just referred to the former karate team captain, a third-degree black belt with a glare that could melt steel and a body made of solid granite, with a cute nickname you'd give a cat. If I called him that, he'd rip my spine out of my body.

"He used to live in Kyushu so he came to visit his family every summer and they lived near Haru-kun and me so we'd play together. He was really interesting. He'd wear a straw hat around everywhere and wouldn't wear shoes and my mom would get so mad at him, like 'The next time you get mud from your filthy feet inside I'll tell your grandfather' and he'd go 'but shoes feel weird, Miss' and it was super funny. He was really good at catching bugs...and fishing...and swimming...but he couldn't spell at all."

"That's wild." I'm trying, but I can't picture my ex-captain as a little boy, the way Ayappi described him. "It's kinda funny thinking about him as a kid."

"I know, right?" Her eyes sparkle as we keep walking down the suburban streets. "Haru-kun had been in the club for months and he didn't recognize him until he got told! I knew it right away, of course." She puffs out her chest with a look of triumph. "He calls me dumb all the time but he forgot the guy who he promised to be friends forever with and I didn't! Me 1, Haru-kun 0."

They're childhood friends, and they're still friends to this day. I don't even know if she realizes how rare that is. It must seem normal to her, knowing someone like Haru from the time they were kids- but that's not the case for me. I don't know where any of the kids I played with in elementary school are now. I don't really care, to be honest.

"I'm curious about something...has he ever given the karate team an impassioned speech about how hard work and believing in yourself will make you win anything?"

"No, not really."

"That's so weird. He looks like he'd do that."

"I've never heard him say anything like that. He mainly corrects us when we're training. The only time I've ever seen him lose his cool was when the student council president showed up one day to do something and then she suplexed him out of nowhere and he turned as red as a mailbox and yelled at her to leave."

Now that was funny. I don't know much about President Suzuran- she's two grades above me, so the only times I've ever seen her were at assembly speeches and the day she crashed the karate team's practice. She doesn't look like the image of a professional Shinchoushi student representative at all...but she apparently swept the elections last year.

"I knew the president when I was little, too!"


"Well..." Ayappi puts a finger on her chin as we continue to walk along. "We didn't really hang out much because she was always busy helping with her family business. But I liked her. Apparently I must have met Suzucchi as a kid, too, but I don't remember her. She and the president are sisters."

"I thought they must have been related somehow." From the little I've seen of the president, she doesn't look like Suzuran from 1-3, and she doesn't act like Suzuran from 1-3, but they had to be related in one way or another. I didn't think they were sisters, though...they're too different. I thought they were cousins or something.

"Oh yeah, and then there was also Kaede-chan, who's Haru-kun's sister. She's a second-year in middle school. When she was younger she used to hide behind Haru-kun and cling onto him and it was so cute but now that she's older she's even cuter! Her kuudere act is really cool! Ahahahaha! Get it?"


"Have you met her before? I bet you'd like her."

"Uh...Haru's talked about her before...haha..." Crap, that was an awful lie. I don't know why I'm avoiding the question. I could have just said yeah, we've met before, but the little voice in the back of my head is telling me that if I say that, it'll cause some trouble. Kaede-chan's a nice girl and all, but I don't see her as anything other than Haru's sister...but it's obvious she has a crush on me.

"I'll introduce you sometime." Ayappi doesn't even seem fazed. "Besides me...and Haru-kun...and Kaede-chan...and Tora-senpai...there was this girl who wore glasses and was really quiet and we called her Ichigo because she used to wear a dress with a strawberry pattern on it a lot and I'm not sure if that was her real name or not, but whatever. And then there was Mimi-chan. She was nice, but really weird. She'd space out all the time."

I can feel a slight twinge of jealousy forming inside me as Ayappi rambles...just the thought of elementary school kids playing around in suburbia, growing up and staying friends without having to worry about constantly moving, not having to care about the cracks in the walls in your bedroom or how your clothes are going threadbare...

She takes it all for granted and it's something I don't have. But I can't hate her for it. She doesn't know what it's like for people who are less fortunate.

...If she knew how I really lived, would she think about me differently? Would Haru? Would everyone?

...Of course they would. That's why I won't let anyone find out.

"It must be nice having a childhood friend or two." I shrug my shoulders as we continue walking. "I haven't talked to mine in a long time."

Ayappi puts one foot in front of the other, balancing like she's walking a tightrope. "Aww, that's too bad. Not even one of them?"

"Nope. I went to a different high school than all of them." I don't even know where all of them went to begin with. I haven't seen them in ages."

"But there's nothing wrong with making new friends!" Ayappi grins as we turn onto another street, past a store with a faded, bright yellow sign advertising musical instruments. "There's opportunities for Relationship Links everywhere, aren't there?"

"For what?"

"For Relationship Links. Like in Ego."

"I've never played one of those games..."

Her eyes go wide. "Really? They're a Japanese cultural icon! They're almost on the level of the Tale of Genji and you haven't played one? How can you even call yourself Japanese?!"

I chuckle reluctantly. "I was always too busy with school to pick them up..." That's a half-truth. The real reason I never played any of them was that my family didn't have any extra money sitting around to give to me so I could buy any other games than the ones they gave me for my birthday.

"I take that back. That was a very Japanese answer."

"Aren't those games really long?"

"They're like 100 hours each...but if you're having fun it feels like no time at all. I've played through Ego 5 3 times already."

"Completely unrelated, but we've been walking around for a while now. Do you want to go hang out somewhere?"

And so it begins. I just have to play it cool. Ask her to get food or something...or see a movie...and then once we've been having fun for a while I muster up my courage and confess...

She whirls around while still walking, sticks her head out toward me, and grins. "The arcade, of course!"

Of course she would pick that. There go most of my plans. I can salvage this, though. I'm smart enough to think on the fly.

The arcade is a four-story building, stained in different shades of gray by thirty years of rain, but still rising above the surrounding buildings impressively. As soon as the doors open, Ayappi skips in, bouncing around excitedly as the flashing lights and loud noises fill the space, hurrying over to the coin machine and inserting a bill. I reluctantly follow. I saved up quite a bit for our date and there goes 2000 just like that. But if it makes her's worth it.

She quickly runs over to an imposing-looking row of fighting games as I follow behind more slowly. I recognize the title.

"You wanna play Bashful Blade?" She cocks her head. "You know how to play, right?"

"My little brother loves it. I play against him sometimes. I'm not that good at it, though." I leave out the fact that I always beat him. Tasuku's good at a lot of things, but not games.

"I didn't know you had a little brother! Mine is kinda annoying. I hope yours isn't that bad..." She takes her seat at one of the cabinets, cracking her fingers over her head. “I don’t mean I hate him though!”

"He's nine. He's not old enough for the obnoxious teenager phase."

My mind flashes back to that night near the abandoned buildings...and that guy. First time I ever saw him and he nearly took my head off. I'm lucky I had the reflexes to dodge.

...If I started dating Ayappi, how would I deal with him? He definitely hates me, and I don't want to have to punch some kid in the mouth...

If. It's only an if.

"Alright, let's go!"

I slowly take my seat. I'm gonna let her win. It's really good date etiquette. Let the girl get what she wants. I bet I'm good enough to beat her, but it would be rude-

Holy crap, I got destroyed.

I got maybe one hit in.

"Takkun, you're not playing seriously!"

...Uh oh.

If that's what she wants, I guess I gotta go all-out...

"Okay, fine. Don't cry if you lose, though."

"Who the hell do you think I am?"

Final score, Ayappi 10, me 0.

Then she beats me at one of the racing games, then another racing game, then Loogy's Mansion (the arcade version), then another fighting game, then Step Step Revolution...

I'm exhausted.

Finally, the torture ends. I can take a second to catch my breath. She's busy concentrating intensely on a UFO catcher, slowly flipping a box with a figure in it over and over until it reaches the drop zone...and then it stops, she reaches for the coin slot, and stiffens with a surprised look on her face. "Crap, I spent all my allowance..."

This is my chance. I've looked like a loser all day, but this is the way I impress her. Helping girls with their problems is how you get them to like you.

"You want me to get it for you?"

"Sure, I guess..."

Two coins later, the figure drops into the retrieval slot, and Ayame bounces over with an expression of pure joy, grabbing the figure and holding it up while twirling it around. "I finally got the limited edition Bride Mitsuba! I had all the other quintuplets and I needed her but I thought I wasn't gonna get her..." Then she stops and looks over at me. "Takkun...uh...since you got it, do you want her? I'll give her to you. As thanks."

"No, you can have the figure. I don't need it."

"For real? Thanks, Takkun!"

Two hours of getting dumpstered at games and looking pathetic, erased in a single second. That was the smoothest move I could have ever made. Thanks, Dad.

She drops the figure in her bag, smiling contently. "I guess we ought to go, since I'm out of money...I had a lot of fun today! I really wanted to go to the arcade with a friend but Haru-kun never wanted to go so I had to come by myself."

Just seeing her childlike joy as she interacts with the world is enough to make me happy.

That's why I like her.

"You want to go get a snack or something? We've been at the arcade for a while." It's time for my finishing blow. The quickest way to get a girl to like you.

"I don't have any money, though..." She looks crestfallen.

"I'll pay for it."

It takes her a second, like she can't comprehend what I just said, and then her eyes go wide. "Really?"


I bet I just shot an arrow into her heart. Or I would, if she was a normal girl. But she isn't. Which is why I like her so much.

Before too long, we've ended up at a nice-looking suburban coffee shop, with glass windows all across the front and clean, minimalist interior decoration. As Ayappi spouts off her order to the cashier, I can't help but look around at all the people inside- couples and friends and singles, all enjoying their day. I wonder if any of them are in debt, or having other problems? Even if they are, they're surely not in the amount of debt my family's in. They're enjoying life. I'm faking it. I've gone out with friends from school before...but I still don't belong in this place.

"Sir?" Suddenly, I realize that the cashier's been speaking to me.

"Huh? Oh...iced cappuccino, please."

As we sit down at the long counter facing the glass windows, it hits me.

Why am I doing all this?

Even if Ayappi really did like me back, we could never be together. I'm moving too far away. It'll never work out. And what about Haru? Would it hurt him like it hurts me seeing them together all the time?

Am I just trying to satisfy myself?

Yes. That's exactly what I'm doing. I, Tatsurou Aikawa, am the most pathetic creature on this planet. Playing with a girl's feelings when I know it'll never work out.

But I can't help myself.

The coffee's okay. It's not the best thing I've ever had, and not the worst thing. Not like I go out to nice coffee houses frequently, though.

"This is really good!" Ayappi's holding her drink with both hands as she merrily sips. It's one of those really sugary ones with chocolate syrup lining the cup and whipped cream. "You wanna try some?"

"No thanks, I think I'm good with mine..." If I took one sip of that, I think it'd upset my stomach.

"What about yours? Is it good?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Can I try some?"

"Sure, I guess-"

Before I can make a move, she darts her head across the table and takes a big sip from my straw.

Holy crap.

That's an indirect kiss. She did that without even hesitating.

I bet she doesn't even realize it. But I'm going to cherish this for the rest of my life. My cheeks are already starting to burn.

Suddenly, she makes a face and sticks out her tongue. "Bleh. Too bitter."

I can't help but laugh. "You look like a little kid."

That's when she punches me in the arm. "Meanie! I expected that from Haru-kun, but not from you!"

"I'm sorry!" I'm struggling to contain my laughter. "It was just too funny!"

It doesn't take long for her to start giggling, too. "I know...I probably looked so stupid..." Suddenly, her laughter disappears. "There's not much time left for us to hang out like this, I guess..." She looks out toward the street with a forlorn expression.

The reality of my living situation comes hurtling back like a ton of bricks. I had momentarily forgotten about it watching her be cute. "Yeah, I guess so..."

"Takkun?" She cocks her head, resting her elbows on the counter, then looks at me with concern. "Is something going on? That announcement that you were going to move came way too everything okay?"

I gulp. "Yeah, it's fine."

"You've been acting weird lately. Are you sure it's nothing?"

I can't allow anyone to find out about our debt. Not Ayappi. Especially not Ayappi. "It's nothing big."

"What do you mean?" Her gaze is closer now.

"I...don't really want to talk about it."

"You can't trust me? Aren't we friends?" She looks at me with pleading, puppy-dog eyes. "Please, Takkun...I've had a bad feeling ever since the teacher made the announcement...if there's any way I can help you, I really want to...can't you tell me?"

In an instant, my defense shatters.

"Yeah. You're right. It is serious."

And before I know it, I've poured my life story out. Every single bit of it. Dad's death, how I found out Mom owed so much money, my younger siblings being so terrified, the Yakuza, every single bit of it.

Ayappi doesn't speak for a moment. Her mouth simply hangs open as we sit in silence. And then, finally, she mutters "I had no idea it was that bad..."

"Now you know."

"That's really sad! Those guys preying on a widow, and making kids scared, and separating you and me...we need to do something!"

"Do what? It's already been decided," I sigh.

"Pay off your debt, of course!"

"In a month? Do you know how much we owe? It'd be easier to get a photo of Santa Claus. How are you gonna do it?"

She fidgets nervously. "I don't know...but as long as we work hard and we don't give up, it'll all work out! My little brother was in trouble and I tried my hardest and it ended up working out, so I'm sure it will for you, too, so long as we do our best!"

"This isn't Janp. The real world doesn't work that way. Just give it up. It'll be better for you."

As soon as I say that, her expression drops. "I'm sorry, Takkun...I just really wanted to do what I could to help's too unfair that these things keep happening..."

God damn it. I thought our date was going well, and I just ruined it. I hurt her. Bad. Now do you see why I didn't want to say anything about my family and our debt? All it's gonna do is make her worry. Making others carry your burdens that they can't do anything about is cowardly. There's no other way to put it. I upset her for no reason at all. If only my resolve was stronger. If only I had kept my mouth shut.

...If only I didn't fall in love with her, it wouldn't be so painful.

"...I know. I just wanted to say...even if it was short, I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with you."

"...Me too, Takkun."

In the end, I couldn't say what I wanted to.

Steward McOy