Nostalgia is dangerous; it's the sentimental remembrance of a time long since passed. A time that, no matter how hard one tries, could never actually be recalled in its totality and thus leaves itself open to having its details filled in with projections of hope and wish fulfillment. You fail to remember that most of the troubles that plague you in your current state existed in the past as well. You allow yourself to be taken to an imagined setting and run away from the world. If I were one to be nostalgic, I might look back to my time as Sobu High School through rose tinted glasses in an effort to escape from my isolated situation. However, for all my faults, I'm not foolish enough to let my mind drift to any sort of imagined golden period in my life. I was just as much of a loner back then as I am now. Even if I did manage to delude myself for a moment, my manager would undoubtedly yell at me to get back to work before any delusions could work their way to deeply into my mind.
I have no glorious past to escape to in day dreams. There's only my part time job at Tsudanuma Udon and my continuing education and with the start of my fourth year still two weeks away my collegiate career was a distant second for the time being.
Work was as simple and boring as ever, one difference being a couple making a scene at around 7:20. The resulting argument saw the woman leave in a flurry of rage, leaving behind her distraught male counterpart. What the argument was about is beyond me, as I was taking the order of an elderly couple on the opposite end of the restaurant when the argument came to its fiery conclusion. It was an interesting contrast the elderly couple before me and the young couple making a scene. What made their relationship stick together while the other fell apart? I couldn't get too distracted by the scene as the manager had been brought out of his office by the commotion and likely would have begun hysterically barking orders at me.
At 142 cm, the man was almost comically short and had an even shorter fuse. The slightest hint of laziness on my part would result in a five to ten minute long rant about the importance of maintaining the quality of the establishment. He seemed to be under the erroneous impression that Tsudanuma Udon was a five star restaurant catering to only the elite, rather than medium sized family restaurant and bar that hosted the occasional family reunion and catered to a group of hardcore regulars that sat in the same bar stools ever night. He wanted to believe that the restaurant of his childhood was something greater than what it was today and in doing so felt continuously inadequate in his management of the restaurant. This in turn fueled his desire to return it to its glory days. He failed to understand that there is nothing wrong with what the restaurant is. Despite not being a five star restaurant it's always very busy, I would know, and has a loyal customer base. This doesn't seem to be enough for the manager and he requires the occasional tongue lashing from his aged mother when she would visit the restaurant every few months.
As the evening dragged on, business began to wind down and the tide of patrons began to flow out, no longer being replaced more quickly than they were leaving. By 9:15 only a handful of the regulars remained at the bar, while at the same time the booths and private rooms had been emptied of their occupants. This meant that I would be able to start cleaning up early and possibly get even off early.
After cleaning off a couple of booth I made my way to the back and began cleaning off the industrial meat slicer we used to shred the frozen meat when the door swung open and the shrill voice of my doughty manager yelled out to me.
"Hikigaya! Why aren't you out at your greeting post? We have a costumer! Get out there and bring her a menu."
"Sir, I've already started cleaning up the kitchen, what will the cook do?" I said, hoping that perhaps just this once, the man's lust for money wouldn't mean I would have to do extra work.
"Well stop what you are doing and seat the young lady. Daichi will handle getting whatever equipment that you already put away ready."
"Of course, sir." I replied.
I wasn't asking for much. I didn't want to be the manager's well-kept house husband or to be paid to just sit around doing nothing, though both of those things would be very nice; I simply wanted to have the opportunity to get home before 11:30. Unfortunately, that seemed to be just a bit too much to ask for.
What kind of woman goes to a noodle restaurant and bar at 9:30 in the evening anyways?
"I bet she's a bitch, maybe even a real prostitute", I thought as I stepped out of the back and saw the Daimyo that I would be serving.
Waiting to be seated was a beautiful woman wearing a sly grin upon her face.
"I thought that was you Hikigaya-kun." She said teasingly.
It would've been nice if the woman had turned out to be some random hostess or a prostitute that was coming in before her evening shift, but instead the woman standing before me was Yukinoshita Haruno.
She was dressed lightly in an off-white blouse, its sleeves rolled up to just around her elbow, and a pale lavender A-line skirt that showed off her calves, or at least it would if she wasn't wearing black stockings. Her hair was longer than the bob cut she wore when last we'd met, though it was still far shorter than her younger sister's had been. Despite the new hair style she was more than recognizable.
My stomach twisted into knots at the sight of her and I almost felt myself subconsciously begin to back away as she stepped towards me. Of all the noodle restaurants in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
"I was across the street when I thought I saw you through the window and I simply had to come in and find out for sure."
Good you found out it was me. Now please leave so that I can go back to cleaning the meat slicer and packing up the rest of the utensils.
"Yes… It's me… Was that…" Before I could finish, she'd reached out and taken the menu from me.
"I think I'd like that booth." She said, stretching out her hand and pointing to the far left corner. Leaning unnecessarily forward, her pronounced breasts came only a few centimeters away from me.
"Follow me, please." I said, hoping that she hadn't noticed the glance I had taken at her chest, but knowing full well that she had done it on purpose.
I wasn't embarrassed that someone from my past had found me at my part time job; there was nothing to be embarrassed about. Still, that didn't mean I felt even remotely comfortable with this woman altering the balance of the working environment that I had finally acclimated to.
If my previous experiences with this woman were anything to go by, she was more than just a little adept at taking carefully balanced ecosystems and throwing them into complete chaos.
After seating her, I began to do the normal spiel about the special of the day and our choice of beverages when she cut me off once again.
"It's been quite a while, Hikigaya-kun. Three years, right?"
"Roughly." I replied, recalling that the last time I had seen her was at graduation. By then the service club had been dead for quite some time and my interactions with the Yukinoshita sisters had grown sparse.
"Do tell what you've been up to since we last met." She said resting her chin upon her intertwined fingers. "Did you fail to cope with the course load and drop out of school, in the process becoming a hikikomori NEET only to have your parents cut you off and force you to take up this job?"
What was with the detailed story of my downfall into NEET-hood and turn to wage slavery? When last we met I was a loner, not a shut in afraid to go outside. The loner rejects the world, or is rejected by it, but continues to move through the world on the outskirts of society. On the other hand the hikikomori rejects the world and closes themselves off as completely as they can.
"No, I'm attending Chiba University. This is a part time job I do to have a little extra spending money." I replied trying to keep my tone as normal as possible in the event my manager was listening.
She grinned. "Just teasing, Hikigaya-kun." Her voice was cold, but not altogether devoid of emotion. "It's nice to see I can still get that super annoyed reaction out of you after so long. I didn't really think you'd break under the pressure. It's good to see that I was right."
If you didn't think I was going to collapse in upon myself like a black hole and become a hikikomori then why was that the first thing that you suggested might have happened to me?
While I thought about that, Haruno began to speak again.
"So, which one of the departments are you in? If I recall correctly you were in the Humanities track, right?"
"I'm in the Education department." I replied.
Haruno's grin grew wider than before and she giggled a little. "I see that Shizuka-chan managed to replicate herself."
That I was following a similar career path as Hiratsuka and becoming a teacher had not escaped me. Yet, I would hardly equate that with myself being a replica of the woman.
That being said, I was working at one of her favorite noodle houses based largely because she was a regular and was friends with the cook.
And there was the fact that in my next term I would be volunteering as a student teacher at Sobu High School.
Plus there was my continued solitude and distinct lack of a romantic relationship.
Maybe Haruno was right.
Maybe I was Hiratsuka 2.0.
Before I could think about this any further she spoke again. "You know Hikigaya-kun, if you need a little extra income, I could always speak to my father and see if we could open up a position for you. A job in a cubical with a nice view of the city, perhaps? You'd like that wouldn't you?"
Yes, because becoming a corporate slave with a pleasant view would be so much better than working at a family owned noodle restaurant.
"Thank you for the offer, but I'm content with my position here and I'd rather not have to rely so heavily on someone for work." I said, completely ignoring the fact that my current job was mostly Hiratsuka's doing.
Haruno looked to be pouting with that response.
"How boring, Hikigaya-kun." Well that was certainly a change of pace. "Becoming a teacher, working in a noodle restaurant, even the hikikomori story was more colorful and entertaining. Have you at least found someone as equally boring to complete the cookie cutter facade? You know they say misery loves company?"
Yes, they do say that, but I'm more than miserable enough as it is and there's no need to experience that misery in stereo. However, her question did make me think of my relationship with women since entering Chiba University. It hadn't particularly changed since last I'd seen Haruno. Whether the fact that I was alone was by choice or because of the outside world or some combination of the two, it didn't matter as the result was the same. I was alone. The only change in the situation since going to college had been that I had grown slightly closer to Shiromeguri Meguri. That had come about as the result of taking several classes with her that overlapped between the Education department and Humanities and Social Sciences department… and joining the Literature Club with her at her behest.
There wasn't any great significance the growth of our interactions. Meguri-senpai was just being nice and helping out her kohai; she was a nice girl and would've done the same thing for anyone else that she was familiar with. That wasn't an indictment of her; she couldn't help but be a sweet and kind natured, if a little air headed, person. My first year high school self would be astonished that I no longer hated nice girls, and that I no longer blamed them for being… well… nice. It had taken the confession of a nice girl and my rejection of that confession for me to realize that there was nothing inherently wrong with nice girls. The world was cruel and sometimes you got your heart broken, but that wasn't their fault.
"I'm still on my own." I finally replied.
"Still looking for something genuine? At least you haven't succumbed completely to normality, Hikigaya-kun." I'm fairly certain that that wasn't a compliment. "Are you sure you won't reconsider a position working at my father's company? He could pull some strings so that you could intern for one of the other members of the city Diet. If that's something you were more interested in."
Was this political corruption? If I accepted would I be complacent in the subversion of our democracy?
"I'm fine where I am." I briskly replied. " Now, if possible, I'd like to take you're order, it's almost 10 and we tend to only be serving drinks at that point and waiting for the regulars to leave."
"Yes…yes, I'll have the Hoisin Chicken Udon." She said handing the menu back to me after looking at it for all of five seconds.
"Would you care for a drink?"
"I'll have that right out for you."
I couldn't get away from her fast enough. Komachi was intrusive enough regarding the state of my non-existent love life and every other facet of my life, I didn't need another member of the PSIA overanalyzing my life and trying to make my decisions for me.
The rest of Haruno's meal was fairly uneventful. Our conversation never turned back to personal matters and the professional boundary between server and guest returned to its natural place. Perhaps I was as she had said "boring". If being boring meant not being on the receiving end of her attention I was more than a little okay with being "boring".
She did however take far longer to eat than most customers, pausing every once and a while to read a book she'd brought in with her. By the time she finished her meal she was the last customer in the building, the drunken regulars having all filed out after last call to get picked up either by their wives or by a taxi.
When she finished her meal I cleaned off her table while she sat there and smiled up at me. Her face was as difficult to read as it had been in the past and there was no telling what sort of malice was being concocted behind the cover of that smile. After that she followed me to the register and we exchanged the bill and her payment.
"Hikigaya-kun, would it at all be possible for you to walk me out to a taxi? It's late and I would feel much safer if you escorted me." She asked as I placed her money into the cash register.
I wanted to say no, but she'd said it loud enough for both the cook and the manager to hear her and almost in unison they assured her that I would escort her out and stay with her until a taxi picked her up.
As we stepped outside, she pressed herself against my right arm and I could feel the fullness of her chest being pressed against me. Before I could pull myself away, she had intertwined her left arm with my right and rested her head on my shoulder.
"Don't play coy Hikigaya-kun, relish the fact that you have the chance to walk arm in arm with a beautiful onee-san. Most men would be happy to be in your position."
Christmas cake expires on the twenty-fifth and the expiration date for interest in this position was rapidly approaching.
What did she have to gain from this? Was this public display of affection meant to catch the attention of my manager and get me fired in order to force me to take the job she had offered? If so the plan was rather foolish and far less thought out than one I would expect from Haruno.
As we stood by the road and waited for a taxi, she spoke again.
"You won't reconsider the job offer?" Her voice was soft and there was a strange hint of sadness in it. Was she trying to guilt trip me into accepting the job?
"I won't." I replied.
She smiled and looking up from my shoulder said, "You never asked about Yukino-chan."
I was caught off guard by her statement. What was I supposed to say in response to that? As I struggled to collect my thoughts a taxi cab pulled up and Haruno released my arm.
"I'll be seeing you soon, Hikigaya-kun." She called out as she entered the car and left me standing by the side of the road.
I stood there and watched the car drive away as Haruno waved goodbye out the back window and faded from my view.
"I'll be seeing you soon"… Was she being serious or simply being nice?
Telling someone that you'll see them soon despite having no intention of doing so was considered a courtesy. Was this one of those courtesies or did Haruno actually intend to return to judge my life choices at a later date. I certainly hoped it was former rather than the latter.
As I returned to the restaurant with this on my mind, I was caught off guard by a sudden embrace from Daichi. The big cook let out a deep laugh as he half hugged half crushed me.
"Hachiman, why didn't you tell me you had a girlfriend? Hiratsuka and I were growing worried about you, but here you are hiding a beautiful onee-san from us." He yelled out in his deep and booming voice.
As I struggled to free myself from the gargantuan cook's embrace, I tried to correct his inaccurate assumptions.
"We don't have that kind of relationship; she's the older sister of someone I went to high school with. In fact I haven't seen her in over three years."
"You must have left quite the impression on her for her to have recognized you so quickly after three years, though those rotten eyes of yours are fairly distinctive." He said, finally releasing me from his grasp.
"If you have such a relationship, why was she clinging to you so firmly on your way out?" The manager said inquisitively, finally piping in on the conversation.
Because she's a manipulative woman that likes to do things to get a rise out of people?
"She enjoyed teasing me when we were younger."
""Hikigaya, if a woman teases you like that it has certain implication." The manager replied.
Yes, everything from a courtesy to a bit of harassment implies deeper feelings, possibly even love. That's what I'd thought as a child at least. Those imagined implications had led to me being emotionally crushed. There was no deeper meaning to Haruno's teasing; it was nothing more or less than teasing. Haruno wasn't some twin-tailed tsundere in a poorly written light novel teasing me while at the same time harboring deeper feelings of love and affection. All I was to her was a bit of evening entertainment.
The rest of the evening went by at a reasonable pace. We cleaned up the grill, the tools, washed the dishes and swept the floor, before finally finishing up at 11:26. Once again, I would not be getting home before 11:30 as I'd hoped.
As I opened up my locker to retrieve my phone and my change of clothes I was surprised to see I had a text message from an unfamiliar number. The only people that sent me texts were my sister and Meguri-senpai, so this was not a normal occurrence.
"I wanted to make sure I still had your number, Hikigaya-kun. Message me back when you get this."
I didn't need to ask myself who could possibly be responsible for the message. It seemed that this answered my earlier question as to whether or not Haruno would indeed be seeing me soon.
If I didn't reply maybe she would think I changed my number and give up. And if I did reply, what was I supposed to say to her?
After much deliberation I finally replied with a simple, "My number hasn't changed."
Before I could set my phone down to change my cloths it buzzed with life.
It was another message from Haruno.
"Did you just get off of work?"
"Yes." I messaged back.
There was no immediate reply this time. I'd changed out of my work cloths and went out back behind the restaurant to unlock my chained up bicycle. As I fumbled with the locking mechanism that kept my bike in place, my phone buzzed one last time.
"Good night, Hikigaya-kun" A sleeping emoji ending her sentence rather than a period.
I looked at my phone for a bit before finally replaying.
: a Japanese feudal lord.
: A young man who retreats from society and becomes a sort of hermit. Often times they have severe agoraphobia.
: a junior or underclassman
: The Japanese national intelligence agency
: a bar term made shortly before the bar closes for the night to signal the last chance to by drinks.