Thus, Kawasaki Saki Strikes.

I, Hikigaya Hachiman, experienced loner and future house husband, began my day with a reckoning that was far overdue.

My eyes were bleary upon opening them, but the feeling wasn't as irritating as it usually was. My body felt refreshed and well-rested, and as I sat up in bed, the audible pop in my back brought about a near indescribable bliss. From what I could tell, clouds were blotting out the early morning sunrise, preventing any obtrusive rays from filtering into my room and disturbing my peace.

In tandem with my unusually agreeable physical form, my mental capacities seemed to be operating at more than optimal as well. When I usually wake up, it takes me a few minutes to gather my bearings, and even longer to begin processing things like I normally would. A slow start, if you would, that I have sort of accepted as a bane to counteract my elite thinking capabilities. There was none of that, however. I was functioning at one-hundred percent right out of the gate.

It was then that I realized it—there was nothing for me to complain about. Absolutely nothing.

For the first time in my young life, I felt completely at ease. My thoughts were not plagued by ideas of cynicism stemming from long-held reservations regarding modern Japanese society, nor were they embroiled in heated imaginary debates tackling the issues concerning today's depraved youth. I didn't feel any of the usual spiteful vigor I usually felt upon waking up early on a school day.

I didn't even feel the urge to monologue dramatically. Not at all. Such was the potent effect brought about by this sudden bout of contentedness.

I was... dare I say it, happy? But that couldn't have been right. Me, the esteemed Monster of Logic, the renowned loner who prowled the halls of Sobu High without saying so much as a hello to others. He was happy? Such absurd blasphemy might have alluded toward the very end of the world as we knew it.

But, as I absently shook my head clear of the nonexistent morning fogginess, I remembered that line of thinking was no longer the norm for me. Kawasaki made a point of purging those kinds of thoughts from my head, and like almost everything else she did, she had done so flawlessly.

Stretching, I slowly got out of bed and made to take a shower. It wasn't to say as though she had completely turned me into an entirely different person that was unrecognizable compared to the Hikigaya Hachiman of old—no, I had long renounced my status as a normie even before meeting her—but I found myself changing the little things about myself, almost without me knowing. I no longer dreaded coming to school every day. I was more receptive to people striking up a conversation with me. Hell, I had even agreed to eat lunch with Totsuka and the rest of the tennis club on one occasion, and had actually enjoyed it.

Of course, I still had instances where I found myself vehemently denying any positive association to my social life, but that was to be expected. Baby steps.

My change in disposition might have also been attributed to the sheer amount of time I had been spending with my azure-haired coworker. We had agreed to go on more outings after our initial get-together, at her insistence, each more enjoyable and exhilarating than the last. I didn't have a problem with admitting that I had fun with her during these meetups. Despite the clichéd nature of our hangouts (which featured the regular suspects—movies, restaurants, strolls around the park, etcetera), I could say wholeheartedly that I was genuinely enjoying myself.

As did Kawasaki, thankfully. She wasn't at all shy about letting me know about it either. Her laughs would sound a little louder, her stares would linger a tad longer, and her hugs would squeeze a little tighter after each outing. That, and she made it a point to tell me directly that she had a great time.

The turning point in all this might have been how I reacted to her words and actions. While I initially tended to sputter and gape at her rather forward displays of affection, I had now found myself becoming much more used to them. That wasn't to imply that they lost their effect (I still blushed like a schoolgirl at the very mention of the "L word"), but I at least wasn't rendered unresponsive anymore. Internally, I had pretty much accepted that we were well beyond the threshold of mere friends.

In truth, we were practically a couple in all but name. With how often we hung out with each other in and outside of school, it was bound to reach the student body's ears eventually. One eavesdropper who saw us on one of our dates blabbed to someone else, who blabbed to another someone, who eventually blabbed to that idiot Tobe, who then proceeded to practically shout to the whole school that she and I were an item. Which wasn't technically wrong, but it was still embarrassing. I still have a reputation to uphold!

Kawasaki hadn't been all too happy to spill the beans about us, but she seemed to take it much better than I did. Her relationship with the rest of our classmates was tenuous at best, barring Hina and I, but that didn't help her from the swarm of girls that came up to her and pestered her for details. Her attempt at ignoring them was commendable, but once the female populace of Sobu High got a hold of you, they scarcely ever let go until their incessant questioning was satisfied.

I shuddered as I exited the shower. The hype had died down slightly, but the questions had not. For the first time in my life, people went and consulted me for advice about girls. For as pretty as Kawasaki was, she was also notorious for being extremely hard to approach, and even harder to strike up a conversation with. The title of Ice Queen would always be Yukinoshita's, but my dear coworker was a close second. An Ice Duchess, perhaps.

How did she and I first meet? How did you get her to like you? What secrets did you use? Did the carpets match the drapes? I was bombarded by questions of this variety for days on end. Since when had I become the resident Love Guru?

As I put the finishing touches on my uniform, I reflected on everything that had gotten me here. How had one mere request turned into me becoming popular? It was baffling to consider how much had happened since Kawasaki had walked into the clubroom those many months ago. My first day on the job, the incident with the college boys, the cultural festival—it felt like a decade's worth of events had been squeezed into this one hectic period of my life. And all because I gave into peer pressure from the people in my club. Typical.

With all that said, and with everything I had come to know and understand since I had first accepted that wonderfully mysterious girl's request, one question remained at the end of it all.

What now?

The answer should have been obvious. Technically, she and I weren't boyfriend and girlfriend. Yes, I was being nit-picky, and yes, it was pretty obvious that we were, by all accounts and definitions, a couple. But hey, I had a right to be a bit hesitant! This was my first time with anything like this! I like to think that anyone would have been a bit on-edge with their relationship concerning a member of the opposite sex being put on blast for the entire school to speculate about.

For someone like me, who had previously lived their entire life in a wide bubble of privacy, this was foreign territory. No amount of preparation could have readied me for this. The very same people who had devoutly ignored me since my first year in high school were now beginning to acknowledge me in a positive light for the first time. It was drastically different, and I had yet to decipher whether this change was good or bad.

But I couldn't deny that a part of me wanted this—not the popularity that came with being in a relationship, but the potential for a relationship itself. I had seen the signs that Kawasaki liked me, and had reciprocated them in my own way. It was different, yes, but it was something I had chosen of my own volition. Just as Kawasaki had urged me to do, I needed to step out of my comfort zone. And I had.

So, the next step was indeed obvious. If all the gossip and speculation surrounding us was unofficial, then I would just have to make it official. The longer I let these rumors fester, the more my life of solitude would be infringed upon. It was clear what needed to be done.

I needed to officially ask Kawasaki Saki to be my girlfriend. Today, preferably.

I shivered at the thought as I made my way down the stairs—an action that wasn't unnoticed by my dear sister. "Good morning, creepy brother of mine! Breakfast's on the table!"

"Hello to you too," I grumbled, taking a seat. T'was the usual, eggs and toast with my favorite orange juice. There were only two plates, which meant that my parents had either already left or had never come home to begin with. Which, again, was the usual.

"What's got you so down in the dumps?" Komachi asked as she slid into her usual spot across from me. Despite her concern, the gigawatt smile she was sporting led me to believe that there were ulterior motives at play. I would have to keep my guard up.

"Nothing serious," I answered with all the nonchalance I could muster. "Just had a weird dream, that's all."

"A weird dream?" Komachi seemed shocked at the idea. "Oh no! Of what?"

"I forgot," I shrugged, biting into my toast. A perfect excuse—people rarely ever remembered their dreams unless they made a conscious effort to do so. I'm the source for that. I had a wonderful dream not too long ago where I finally did manage to verbally beat that wretched Ice Queen to tears, and it was glorious. Also, the record that Yuigahama had been documenting our arguments with was 999 to zero, in favor of me. I couldn't have asked for a better dream if I tried.

"Was it about you and Saki-chan officially becoming a couple?"

I nearly choked on my toast. "Wha—how did you—"

"I have my Nii-chan sources for my Nii-chan news," the girl replied with a wink. "Ooh, I bet that one—"

"Got you a lot of points, yes, I get it," I quickly interrupted. It was worrying that Komachi somehow had a way of knowing nearly everything about my high school life, but that was a conversation for later. "Who told you about this?"

She defiantly turned her head away. "My sources demand anonymity. I am sworn to secrecy."

That little... whatever. Getting angry with her at this point would be counterproductive. "So, what do you get out of knowing this?"

"Are you kidding?" Komachi asked, incredulous. "I'm hurt that you didn't tell me about this, Onii-chan! My shut-in brother getting together with the pretty older sister of my friend? It's perfect! A match made in heaven!"

"How would you know whether or not it's a match made in heaven?" I didn't mean to sound so defensive. I wasn't necessarily disputing her statement either. I was just curious, is all.

Komachi rolled her eyes. "Well, let's see. She genuinely cares for you, is drop-dead gorgeous, is a driven hard worker, and is willing to put up with all your weird monologues." She inhaled a bite of scrambled egg before continuing. "And I've seen the bentos she makes for Taishi-kun. That girl can cook."

Already on a first name basis with the little insect, are we? It would seem that the services of Hiki-exterminator-kun are required. And yes, she can indeed cook, don't tell me things I already know.

"You never know," I interjected. "There could be a complete psychopath underneath all that ideal womanly virtue."

"You'd probably be into that, wouldn't you?"

I sighed. Guilty as charged.

My sister leaned over the table excitedly. "So, when are you gonna ask her?"

I feigned ignorance. "Ask her what?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Nii-chan."

There really wasn't anything I could sneak by this devilishly cute fiend of a sister, was there? "... today."

"Ooh!" Komachi squealed. "Look at you, finally taking the initiative! I bet she's gonna be surprised! But really happy too!"

My brow raised. "You think so?"

"Duh!" She replied, as if it were obvious. "Girls like when guys are aggressive. It means that they're thinking about them, and no girl doesn't want a guy that lovingly dotes on them."

"That sounds like a convenient excuse to justify sexual assault."

"You know what I mean, dummy."

I fiddled with my hands beneath the dinner table. "So... what should I do?" I honestly didn't have a clue about how to go through with this whole thing. Which was a bit silly, considering everything she and I had gone through together. Getting her to talk to me again after the cultural festival was leagues harder than asking her a simple question, yet here I was, agonizing all the same.

I hadn't even planned on asking anybody for help, which was pretty dumb in retrospect. With my inexperience, I would have likely turned a nerve-wracking experience into a catastrophic disaster. I hadn't allocated nearly enough skill points in the Ladies' Man skill tree for me to know how to proceed in this kind of situation. A rock probably had a better idea of what to do than I did.

Could I have asked her out during one of our weekend get-togethers? One would think so, but asking a girl to be your significant other while you were already on a date felt like a cart-before-the-horse type thing. There weren't many other instances in which she and I were able to get one-on-one time, either.

At least my dear sister had enough compassion to guide me during these trying times. Truly, she was too good for this world.

And, in all of her infinite wisdom and knowledge, she expounded before me the ultimate solution to my endless plight. "Just ask her."

I blinked owlishly. "Huh?"

Her tone was considerably calmer than it had been minutes prior. "How long have you two been talking with each other?"

Honestly? I didn't know. The days and months flew by before I could start keeping track of them. "A while."

"And how much drama have you two gone through?"

No amount of words could have done my answer justice. "A lot."

"So," Komachi continued. "Don't you think that after all of this—after everything you two have been through—you owe it to her to be open and honest with what it is you want?"

That... made sense. True, we had done a lot of dancing around each other, especially early on in her request. I was a bit tired of the mind games, and I imagined she was too. A little bit of honesty might have done the both of us a lot of good.

Still... "But, don't you think she might want a little more than that? Aren't these things supposed to be a bit more..." I trailed off.

"A bit more...?" Komachi urged me to continue. I struggled to find the right words to convey what it was I was trying to say.

"I don't know... flashy?" I offered weakly. Komachi, predictably, looked confused. "What do you mean?"

"Well—it's like..." I started blushing. This was so embarrassing. "When people think of confessions, there's usually some group consensus that suggests that it needs to be done in a manner that is eye-catching and appealing." Komachi's brow raised suspiciously, but I was too far gone now to stop midway.

"Er, that is to say, it needs to be done in a way that draws attention. Among high school students, confessions are generally regarded as important events that deserve ample surveillance. That's why word of confessions travels so fast, regardless of the outcome. It's what people are inherently drawn to—the suspense, the drama of it all."

"So," I continued. "To that end, confessions are done in a way that's meant to draw eyeballs. A subtle note in a locker, telling someone to meet under a sakura tree behind the school. The sun is setting, the wind is blowing softly, and the tension in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife. The two parties converge, nervous but hopeful, knowing what the atmosphere and imagery implies yet feigning ignorance anyway. The sender opens his mouth, and then—"

"That's enough," Komachi abruptly halted my speech, drawing me out of stupor. "Onii-chan, I can't even put into words how wrong that is."

I suddenly felt the intense urge to die. "I... huh?"

"I thought you would know better than to confuse fantasy with reality," Komachi sighed, bringing a palm to her forehead. "But I didn't think you'd actually assume that shoujo manga rules apply in real life."

I remained silent. Yeah, death seemed pretty appealing right now. I wondered how long it would take for me to asphyxiate by holding my breath...

Despite her teasing, my little sister smiled. "But, I guess you must really like her if you want to do that much for her. For your sake, I forbid you from doing anything that embarrassing, but the thought is sweet."

"Gee, thanks," I muttered, angrily drowning my embarrassment with orange juice. She was never going to let me live this down for as long as I lived. How stupid of me.

"Look, just be yourself and ask her straight out. It would probably be better to do it while you two are alone, so that you don't have any interruptions." She was in full schemer-mode now. "I would recommend the school rooftop. You two are both familiar enough with the venue, and it's relatively empty after school."

"Again, how do you know all of this?"

She winked at me. "I told you, I'm not telling!"

I shot a glance at the clock. I would need to get going soon, and I had roughly three-fourths of my breakfast plate left to go. Before I started gorging myself, I asked my sister the one question that had been on my mind since making my decision to confess today. "What if she says no?"

The girl across from me shot me a knowing look. "Something tells me that won't happen."

I gave her a curious look as I swallowed the rest of the scrambled eggs. "How do you know?"

"Call it a woman's intuition. Or sister's intuition. Whichever makes you feel better."

I sighed. That was probably the best advice I was going to get out of her. "Well, my brother's intuition is telling me that we're gonna be late if we don't hurry up."

It seemed to occur to her that we couldn't spend the whole morning discussing my love life. "Crap, you're right!" She devoured the rest of her plate while simultaneously berating me, speaking through the heaps of food in her mouth. "This wouldn't have happened if—" she swallowed. "—if you hadn't been preaching that weird fantasy of yours!"

My cheeks flushed once again. "It is not a fantasy. It was a purely hypothetical scenario I created based on what I know about high school."

Komachi finished her juice in one go before speaking. "I hope Saki-chan can fix that weird part of your personality."

I rolled my eyes. "Shut up. You love that about me."

Sighing, my dear sister allowed herself a strained smile. "Unfortunately, I do."

Lunch rolled around fairly quickly. After breaking nearly every Japanese biking law known to man, I had somehow managed to make it to class on time, and in turn avoid Hiratsuka's wrath. The fatigue that I should have felt this morning hit me like a freight train after I made it to my desk, and after sleepwalking through homeroom and my other morning classes, the clock had signaled that I was already halfway through the school day.

I was tempted to sleep through the break before a finger jabbed into my side. Grunting in slight pain, I glared at the offender with as much contempt I could muster. The feeling quickly left once I saw who the finger belonged to.

"Hey," Saki Kawasaki greeted roughly, eyeing me with suspicion. She looked the same as she always did—face set in a nearly perpetual deadpan, jacket wrapped around her torso, and her hair done up in that trademark ponytail. Even after seeing her this way so many times, I couldn't help how my heart started beating just a tad faster by seeing her. Truly, my heart was that of a maiden's.

My classmate-turned-coworker took my silence as a cue to continue. "Why were you late this morning?"

Interrogating questions right out of the gate, huh? Though she sounded scary, I couldn't help but envision her in the place of a jealous housewife grilling her husband about his late-night whereabouts. The chances of Kawasaki becoming a docile housewife were the same as the planet blowing up in the next five seconds, but a man could dream, couldn't he?

"Stayed up. Woke up late," I lied. Well, not really. I did stay up last night. Vita-chan and I had a prior engagement that lasted well until the midnight hours. Certainly, it was a trying and physically taxing experience.

I grimaced. Now it really did sound like I was cheating on Kawasaki. Such infidelity on my part was appalling.

Kawasaki seemed to accept my answer, and her indifference morphed into concern. "You shouldn't be staying up so late. It's bad for your health."

"Ironic coming from you, the queen of midnight shifts," I teased, and the girl's frown grew. Before she could retaliate, however, another classmate of mine decided to announce herself.

"Hey, Hikki!" Yuigahama called, walking toward my seat. I gave a lazy wave in greeting as she stopped by my desk. "Yukinon wanted me to tell you to come to the club today. She said it was mandatory."

That earned my attention, and my disappointment. "Mandatory? How come?"

"The athletic festival's almost here!" Yuigahama cheered. I'd almost forgotten that the athletic festival was a thing until now. No rest for the weary, huh? "She said that there's an expectation that there'll be a... an... indux...?"

"Influx?" I offered.

"Yeah, that! An influx of people with requests for the club! She wants you to be ready in case we get a lot of work!"

I sighed. Of course she did. That damnable woman would work me to my grave if she ever found the occasion for it. "And if I don't show up?"

Yuigahama's smile faltered. "I think we both know that you shouldn't make her upset on purpose."

That was true. That didn't mean I had to respectfully comply, however. "I'll think about it."

"What else are you even doing after school?" Yuigahama shot me a skeptical look. I expected this much from her, however, and had already thought of an effective counter.

"Sorry, I've got work today. You know, at the job you and Yukinoshita forced me to apply for." I allowed myself a haughty smirk. Could the world handle this much genius? Making my fellow club members feel bad about something they forced me to do was well justified, and in my opinion, totally badass.

I was reveling in Yuigahama's growing pout and fantasizing about all of the free time I'd have today until Kawasaki decided to open her big mouth. "Didn't you know, Hachiman?" My worker's tone was dripping with false concern. A quick look in her direction revealed that she was desperately fighting back a sinister smirk of her own. "We're not scheduled for tonight's shift."

I sent the chilliest look I could summon in the horrid woman's direction. I had finally managed to pull a fast one on the service club, and she thought it was okay to simply ruin it all? I thought you loved me!

Yuigahama's pout had quickly changed into a gleeful grin. "That's great! Now Hikki can come to the club without missing out on anything!" Her cheerful expression made its way over to me. "Right, Hikki?"

I got the feeling that there was an immense amount of malice hiding behind that innocent genki-girl expression. "... fine."

She clasped her hands together excitedly. "Awesome! I'll see you then!" Yuigahama zipped away in a matter of seconds, sitting down to have lunch with the rest of her popular friend group a small distance away. Sometimes, I found it astounding that she and I had somehow managed to become friends.

I shot a pointed look at the she-devil beside me. "You're a horrible person, you know that?"

"Maybe," Kawasaki shrugged. "But I still make your lunch, so you have no room to complain."

I sighed. Women were insufferable. "Whatever. Let's eat." I was promptly handed a bento, and after the azure-haired girl pulled a chair beside my desk, we got to eating.

"I completely forgot that the athletic festival was coming up," Kawasaki noted between mouthfuls of onigiri.

"No one really makes a point of remembering it, outside of the sports clubs," I replied after my first bite. Man, her lunches were great. Had I ever mentioned that? "We're not the most athletically-inclined school."

"True," Kawasaki agreed, before sending a tiny smile in my direction. "I never did get to thank you for last year's win, by the way."

I had almost forgotten that she and I had been on different teams during the last athletic festival. I did remember, however, that she had performed unreasonably well, especially during the ChiBattle. She looked good in that weird medieval getup...

Even so, I wouldn't stand for this slander. I wasn't very competitive in any capacity, but seeing someone mock my efforts was a good way to set me off.

"How was I supposed to know that anyone was watching me? The tape-over-headband plan would have been flawless otherwise."

"Yeah, well, maybe you should take that as a sign that plenty of people make a habit of watching you." The girl casually tossed her hair behind her shoulder. "Oh, I don't know if you knew this or not, but I was the one who reported you to the official."

My eyes widened. "That was you?"

She shrugged. "I was watching you the whole time. Smart plan in theory, but you were a bit too dumb to make it work."

"You snitch!" I growled half-angrily. I wasn't really all that upset, but this was a chance to make Kawasaki feel bad for causing me trouble, and I was nothing if not petty.

Kawasaki didn't look the slightest bit remorseful, however. "You deserved it. Cheaters never prosper."

"I was cheating on behalf of the club," I defended. It had been a request by Shiromeguri, if I recalled correctly. So long as she was happy, the ends justified the means, right?

"I really need to fix that nasty way of thinking," Kawasaki gave me a worried look. I was relieved that she was apparently so concerned for my wellbeing, but I felt like this was her way of covertly insulting me. Just a hunch.

"Whatever," I grunted, returning to my lunch and effectively ending the conversation. A comfortable silence befell us, and I was content to let the silence remain. She and I were very much alike in this regard—we didn't need constant conversation to enjoy ourselves, especially around each other. Whereas filthy riajuus felt the constant need to utilize conversation in an effort to prevent awkward bouts of wordlessness, people like Kawasaki and I reveled in the bliss that was mutual silence.

I had begun working on my second rice ball when I suddenly froze up. Crap, I totally forgot that I needed to ask this woman out today. I'd been so attuned to the relaxed atmosphere that the task I had spent the entire morning agonizing over had almost entirely slipped my mind.

I shot a subtle look to the girl in question. She was absorbed with something on her phone—probably looking at pictures of her siblings, if I knew her as well as I thought I did. I would need to scheme of a way to naturally ask her to come to the roof after I was finished with my club activities, without tipping her off to my true intentions.

I doubted that she would mind if I asked to take her somewhere. I'd done so already multiple times for our weekend meetups. The problem was that there was usually a justifiable reason for me to ask her to hang out. It was the weekend, she and I had nothing better to do, and we both enjoyed spending time with each other. Asking her to the rooftop on a school day typically implied the very thing I didn't want her to know about. I had to be as discreet as possible about this.

What excuse could I use to get her to the roof without her suspecting anything? What personality traits or attributes about her could I exploit to get her to meet me at the roof?

Then it hit me. Of course! Her overbearing older sister tendencies! How had I not thought of this sooner?

"Hey, Kawasaki," I called out to her, and her attention shifted from her phone to me. I had a very good feeling that this would work. "Can I ask for your help with something?"

"Sure. What's up?" She asked. Despite my current scheming, I could appreciate how ready and willing she was to help me at a moment's notice. She really was a great girl. She'd make a good service club member too, if she ever got around to joining.

"Komachi lost something of hers when she came to visit the school a few days ago. She has no idea where it went, but she has a good idea of where it might be." I sighed melodramatically for effect. "Would it be too much to ask for your help in finding it? It's eating her up inside, and I'd really appreciate it."

One major thing I've learned during my time in high school is that most people have a certain "look" they possess. What I'm referring to is an expression that deviates from their normal countenance into something unique only to them. It goes beyond the typical expressions you see from the everyday person in reaction to expected events—narrowing your eyes when you're angry, smiling when you're happy, those kinds of things. No, what I'm talking about is a specific look within specific people.

I've seen them in my immediate circle of acquaintances. Yukinoshita's "look" is a minute twitch of the eye, followed by a subtle bite of the right side of her lip. This surfaces in either two scenarios—in reaction to an unforeseen event she had not previously anticipated, or in response to seeing a cat. From what I've gathered, it seems to be a mechanism aimed at calming her down in response to overstimulation. Which would make sense, given the circumstances required to elicit her "look".

Yuigahama is much more overt. First, she'll laugh awkwardly, sometimes loudly. Her eyes will travel to the floor, though her small, strained smile will remain. The most minuscule action follows her hand gestures, more specifically her fingers—her thumbs will anxiously rub against the tips of her index fingers. In contrast to Yukinoshita, her "look" surfaces in a host of situations. I've seen her do it when she's happy, when she's embarrassed, or when she's uncertain. I suppose that comes from how vocal and emotional Yuigahama typically is.

Kawasaki is not exempt from this rule. Her mouth opened in surprise, and her pupils dilated slightly. A hand absently fiddled with the end of her long hair. Yes, this was the look of Kawasaki Saki, lover of all things sibling-related.

Was it a bit underhanded of me? Perhaps. But it was for an innocent reason! I wasn't like I was manipulating her for my own personal gain. I'm sure she would thank me for it later. Hopefully.

Gah, me and my bleeding heart. This girl really had altered my sense of morality. I used to be so much more twisted back in the day.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Kawasaki gave me a comforting look, sibling-con mode in full effect. "Of course I'll help you out. Did you already check the lost and found? I can search there while you're at your club."

Hook, line, and sinker. I really was too smart for my own good. "No, that's okay, I already looked there. I was going to search around the rooftop today after school, actually. Would you mind meeting me up there?"

"Yeah, that's fine." She smiled at me. "What was it that she lost, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Oh. Uh," I stammered briefly. I didn't think she'd ask that, but it made sense that she would. "A... necklace."

"A necklace?"

"Yeah, a necklace," I confirmed. I was talking out of my ass now. "It's... sentimental. I made it for her in a crafts class in middle school. She's been wearing it ever since. Loves the thing to death."

Kawasaki's cheeks flushed slightly, and I heard her quietly mutter "that's adorable" to herself. I hoped she wasn't scheming of a way to force her own siblings to wear handmade bracelets. Knowing her skill with crafting clothes and accessories, I imagined it wouldn't look half-bad, but I didn't think poor Keika could take any more doting from her older sister. Taishi could use the character building, though.

Offhandedly, I wondered if Komachi actually would wear a handmade bracelet from me. Probably not, knowing how much of a little fashionista she was, but she'd certainly earn a lot of points if she did.

"So," I got back on track. "I'll see you on the rooftop?"

"Yeah, sounds good." Kawasaki agreed, and the plan was finally set into motion. There was no turning back now. Today would be the day that Hikigaya Hachiman grew from a boy to a man—figuratively, of course.

I could already feel the perspiration forming at the top of my forehead, and my palms growing clammy. God, this was so stupid. If I was already this much of a nervous wreck before school was even over, how would I manage to tell Kawasaki how I felt without somehow biting my tongue off and throwing myself off of the roof?

Kawasaki apparently noticed my nerves too. "Hey, are you feeling alright?" Her concerned tone reached my ears. "You're looking a little red."

I remembered asking her the same question during my first trip to the Angel Ladder. I'd still been oblivious to her feelings (kind of), and I didn't know nearly as much about her as I did currently. Now, here I was wilting under the presence of the very same girl. Funny, how much things can change in a short period of time.

"I'm fine," I reassured her, though she didn't seem to buy it. Thankfully, she went against prying, instead choosing to finish off the rest of her lunch. I made to do the same, though my bites were a lot more hesitant and shaky. We fell back into that familiar silence, despite how uncomfortable it now felt for me.

I'd been so sure of doing this, but now I was starting to have second thoughts. There was a lot that could go wrong. For starters, it wasn't even a guarantee that the roof would be unoccupied. From what I knew of the student body, people used it all the time. For confessions, hangouts, and... other things. If there was even one other person in the vicinity, my whole plan would have been ruined.

Then there was Kawasaki herself. I knew she... admired me, but I still couldn't help but wonder if I was maybe getting too ahead of myself. I said I would never doubt her affections again, but making our relationship status public went beyond the realm of what she thought about me. What if she wanted to keep what we had private? Would she think that I was seeking attention from the rest of the school by doing this? Would she think less of me by believing that I still needed affirmation under the traditional "boyfriend-girlfriend" label?

What if my actions made her not like me? My hand unconsciously clenched at the thought. After everything we went through, it would have been a nightmare if it ended with her renouncing her affections for me. It likely would have devastated me mentally—I might not have been able to love another woman again.

Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration, but I would be pretty scarred from such an ordeal. Sure, I was used to being publicly embarrassed and treated like trash, but that was from people I hardly knew and didn't particularly care about. Scorn from strangers was something I had quickly become accustomed to. It was contempt from people I knew and cared about that frightened me the most, which was why I had gone to such lengths to prevent establishing those bonds in the first place. I had failed in that effort, obviously.

I didn't want to guilt Kawasaki into entering a relationship with me either. One of the worst things I could have possibly done was use my emotional vulnerability as a crutch to enforce the notion that dating me was a necessity, rather than a choice—"If you don't date me, I don't know what I'll do!" I might have been rotten, but I wasn't deplorable.

I would leave her answer up to her. I would respect her decision, regardless of what it was. Even if it ended up hurting me in the process.

And, as I silently finished my lunch beside the very same girl I was stressing over, that very thought was what scared me the most.

"I'm leaving," I called to the other members of the service club. Shouldering my bag and making my way toward the door, I aimed a farewell salute at the two other inhabitants of the clubroom.

"See you tomorrow Hikki!" Yuigahama waved gleefully from her seat. Yukinoshita was much more subdued in her goodbye. "Good work today, Hikigaya."

I almost felt the need to scoff. What work? There hadn't been a single request today, despite her earlier threats. I was tempted to angrily voice these inner comments of mine, but I decided to let it go out of the kindness of my heart. She was lucky I was such an upstanding individual.

Sliding the door behind me, I took a deep breath. Well, here it was. The time had finally come.

My steps were slow and deliberate as I strolled through the silent hallway. Normally, I quite liked how empty the school was during this time of day. It gave me time to reflect on my thoughts and relax after a stressful day in this modern zoo that was thinly veiled as a high school. I always treasured the moments I could steal for myself regardless of my environment, but managing to find some peace and quiet on school premises was a particularly special treat.

A quick look outside revealed that the sun was already setting. It seemed to be that time of year again. The sky would grow cloudier, the temperature would begin to drop, and the holidays would begin in earnest. The weather in Chiba during the winter season was brutal. I was not looking forward to having to come to school with a face full of snow every morning.

This time of year also tended to be a rather sociable time for the population. The general gift-giving and merriment that infested the country had long served as a source of ire for me as a loner. Naturally, that feeling extended to the classroom, and as such I would typically bear witness to the abhorrently sappy interactions between my lovesick classmates.

Obviously, my experiences with the holidays weren't all that positive. When I was younger, during class gift exchanges, the unfortunate soul who would receive my gift would quickly toss it in the trash, regardless of whatever the gift was. My roles in the yearly Christmas plays weren't at all notable, and I ended up playing a tree or some other backdrop in almost all of them. And of course, I had never once been invited to a Christmas party.

The sound of my footsteps echoed as I changed hallways. Truly, I hated this time of year. Not even my sister's sweet gifts could redeem the season for me. There was little I could do about it, however. The only thing that was within my power was the ability to seethe quietly at those who made an effort to enjoy the holidays with others. Only they weren't actually enjoying it—they were taking advantage of the time of year to fulfill their materialistic desires and goad members of the opposite sex into entering idealistic relationships with them. You didn't need to be a loner to understand that people were generally at their weirdest and sleaziest during the holidays. It's why so many Christmas movies exist.

All those rom-com antics, and for what? Why bother when you could just get something for yourself and call it a day? That's what I normally did, anyway.

I remembered mentioning some time ago, during my first year of high school, that it was my dream to follow along the path of the bear—proud, lonesome animals that never formed groups. Bears were self-sufficient, devout isolationists, and got to ignore the holidays and hibernate yearly when it got cold (which was still awesome to me, even all this time later). Bears didn't require validation from others. Bears weren't forced to interact with those of their kind that might have thought lesser of them. Bears were just bears—they slept, they prowled, and they killed mercilessly.

It was exactly the kind of simplicity I had yearned for in my own existence, outside of the killing part. Everything I had done in my life—from the way I thought, to the way I acted—was done to achieve a lifestyle that was not only efficient, but easy. I didn't have any desire to perform household chores, so I had Komachi do them. I didn't want to join the pitfall that was the workforce, so I would become a househusband.

I didn't want to hurt myself by getting too close to others, so I would forego establishing any kind of intimate relationship entirely.

I'm not a contrarian by any means. I don't disagree simply for the sake of disagreeing. My modus operandi follows the idea that if there is an easier and simpler way to do things, then there is no excuse not to do it. Collectivism is a plague that festers in the mind and chips away at the individual from the inside, until all that's left is a husk of a human being that has lost the right to their own agency. I refuse to contribute to what the group consensus desires from me, especially when the group consensus is wrong.

I almost felt the urge to laugh. And here I thought I was done with the monologues for good. Old habits die hard, I guess.

In spite of all my grandstanding, I had become so accustomed to defying the social laws and ethics of others that I had somehow managed to defy myself. Even with my abundant griping, I had gone and formed close relationships with other human beings. Not very bear-like of me, I suppose. I had also gotten a job, gone out on weekends, and obtained myself a pseudo-girlfriend, all in the span of a few months.

It would be hard for other loners to understand. Why forsake that with which you have clung to so dearly for a great deal of your life? Why turn your back on the correct way of living? The answer isn't as profound as one would believe it to be. There isn't any shining light at the end of the tunnel. There's no sudden "aha!" moment that automatically turns you into something you previously weren't. I won't even make an attempt to claim that my previous way of thinking was wrong, and that everything I believed in before was a lie. Objectively speaking, living your life free of obligations and relationships is easier, more efficient, and less of a general hassle.

What I've come to learn is that there are benefits in forming relationships with others. Yes, people are vile, cruel, selfish and gullible. They'll walk all over you if given the chance, and make a habit of treating each other like garbage. But, for the tens or hundreds or even thousands of people that make a point to ignore and vilify you for no discernible reason, there's bound to be one person who makes an honest effort to see the good in you. It might be a bit hard to find, underneath the mountains of pride and embarrassment that come with openly admitting your emotions to someone else (trust me, I would know), but once you finally reach the core of a person, the bond that subsequently forms makes all that tiring effort worth it.

It goes against my simple way of life, and my policy of exuding as little effort into things as possible. But perhaps there's more to life than effort and efficiency.

I'm not a bear, even though I wish I was. Things would be so much easier if I could just prowl around a forest, kill things when I'm hungry, and hibernate when it got cold. But instead, I was unlucky enough to be born as a human being. A human with beliefs, dreams, and worst of all, emotions. Emotions that have recently become a lot clearer in the past few weeks.

But, as I began to ascend the staircase leading to the rooftop, I decided that I still hated this time of year. The chill that overcame me as I neared the door only reinforced that notion.

Swinging the entrance to the rooftop open, I was immediately met with a blast of cold air. It wasn't snowing or anything, thankfully, but considering that the only outerwear I had bothered bringing to school was a flimsy scarf, I wasn't really all that prepared to take on the elements today. The breeze that blew in from the mainland wasn't doing me any favors either.

Taking a quick gander around the rooftop, I was pleased to see that I was alone. No one had apparently wanted to venture out to the rooftop after school in this weather. That boded well for my future plans.

Upon further inspection, I was horrified to see that I was alone. As in, I was literally the only person present on the rooftop. Which meant Kawasaki wasn't here.

Despite my better judgement, I started to panic slightly. Had she discerned my true objective and ran off, leaving me here by my lonesome? Had she finally thought better of our relationship and subsequently ditched me? Had she just plain forgotten that we had planned to meet on the roof after school? My hyperactive imagination was normally something I begrudgingly put up with, but now it was actively working to illustrate literally every doomsday scenario that could have applied to this development.

Lost in my own thoughts, I had failed to hear the creaking of the door behind me. Or the subsequent voice that followed. "Hachiman?"

I jumped. The feminine yelp that escaped my throat was something I quickly tried to play off. "O-Oh. Kawasaki. You're, uh, here."

"I've been here," she crossed her arms. "I saw you walking alone in the hallway. I was calling out to you, but I guess you didn't hear me." Her eyes gained a hint of suspicion. "That, or you were ignoring me."

I sighed. Me and my stupid monologues. "Come on, you know I wouldn't do that on purpose. I just have a bit on my mind." I quickly remembered the excuse I had used to drag her up here in the first place. "I, um, really want to find Komachi's bracelet."

Kawasaki's inquisitive look only sharpened. "I thought you said it was a necklace?"

Shit. "Did I say necklace? I meant bracelet. Sorry, I've got a habit of mixing the two up." Aren't they basically the same thing anyway? Why is jewelry so needlessly complicated?

My classmate was silent for a moment, before seemingly letting it go. "Well, it's fine. So long as we find it, it doesn't matter what it is."

She stuffed her hands in her coat pockets, suppressing a shiver. "So, what's this bracelet look like?" Thankfully, I'd had enough down time in the club to dream up an imaginary piece of jewelry.

"It's nothing super eye-catching. Just a thing of white plastic beads connected by a string. Two of the beads have my sister's initials on it."

Kawasaki actually seemed pretty interested. "Oh, that's cool. You said you made it in middle school?"

"Yeah," I lied. "It was an end-of-term project. Just a little thing we were supposed to make for a loved one."

She smiled. "I'm surprised you didn't make it for yourself."

"I don't hate everyone. Also, that would imply that I don't already hate myself."

Kawasaki thankfully didn't take my self-deprecating joke too seriously, settling for a playful punch against my shoulder that still kind of stung a little. "Shut it, you sis-con."

I snorted. "You're one to talk."

"Whatever. Let's find this thing before we both freeze to death out here."

And thus the wild goose chase began. "Sure thing. I'll check this side, you check the other?" Kawasaki nodded, and we both set off to find this imaginary item of mine.

Well, here it was. This was either going to be the most joyful or agonizing next fifteen minutes of my life, depending on how this went. Perhaps I was exaggerating, but that might have alluded to simply just how much this meant to me.

But I couldn't rush into this blindly. Asking her out of the blue would probably only work to confuse her. I had to strike up a normal conversation, and let the topic steadily flow to the confession. Unfortunately, none of my one-hundred-and-eight loner skills could apply in this particular situation. I was on my own for this one.

Yet, the words would not come. My mouth would try to force something out, I'd freeze, and return to fumbling around on the ground aimlessly. I was thankful Kawasaki wasn't able to see me opening and closing my mouth repeatedly like some kind of fish.

It remained this way for ten or so minutes. Kawasaki stayed quiet throughout, checking along the railing on her side of the roof and investigating behind the many pipes and generators. I myself tried to look busy, but I could only stare at the floor for so long while upholding the guise that I was hard at work.

Eventually, I settled for a strategic retreat. "Hey, let's take a break."

Kawasaki seemed willing to oblige. "Sure."

My body had actually heated up a little with all that aimless moving about, so I wasn't feeling as cold as I had been previously, though it still felt a little chilly. I was content to slump against the wall next to the door. Kawasaki followed suit wordlessly, planting herself a few inches to my left.

As soon as we sat, I felt a weird something fall brush against my eyelashes. A quick look to the cloudy sky above revealed a few snow flurries beginning to fall, settling softly against the pavement. Great, inclement weather. Just what I needed.

The sudden weather change only meant that I had to be that much more expeditious in my confession. I didn't know if I could mentally handle having to put this off and sleep on it for another day. I also didn't think I'd get another perfect excuse to talk to Kawasaki alone like this at school.

I sighed. This time of year really did bring out the absolute worst in people. Myself included.

I had to get the ball rolling with some kind of conversation, no matter how dumb it was. With that in mind, I took the plunge. "So..."

Kawasaki quirked an eyebrow. "Hm?"

"I noticed you quit smoking." Maybe not the most tactful icebreaker ever, but it was better than nothing. I could only hope she didn't take my desperate comment as weird or offensive.

Thankfully, she didn't. "Ah. Well, I haven't managed to entirely kick the habit yet, but I've been getting better."

"That's good," I replied. It was quiet for a while longer before I decided to continue. "What made you want to stop?"

A soft hum. "A few things. Obviously, it isn't healthy. I also started realizing just how much money I was spending on packs." She paused. "Well, I say all that, but I'm thinking that maybe I just wanted to set a good example for my siblings."

That was understandable. "Why'd you pick up the habit in the first place?" I asked, before hastily adding, "Uh, that is, if you don't mind me asking."

She shrugged. "It's fine. Honestly, I don't really know. I like to think that it was just a part of my rebellious phase that stuck with me longer than I would have liked." The girl grimaced. "Thinking back on it, I guess I did think that it was cool and made me look more mature. I had my first smoke in middle school, and it kind of snowballed from there."

Middle school, huh? It's crazy how different peoples' experiences throughout adolescence can be. I hadn't so much as come within fifteen feet of cigarettes in middle school, much less used them.

"Though, I guess there was a bit of outside influence," Kawasaki admitted. I could sense the hesitance in her voice. I guess she didn't want to make it sound like she was shifting all of the blame onto forces beyond her control. "My dad's side of the family has a history of smoking and lung problems. My grandma died of lung cancer this past year because of it, actually."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I quickly offered my condolences.

"Don't be. She knew she had it coming," My classmate quickly rebuffed. "One of the last conversations I had with her was about how much she regretted it all. I..." she stopped for a moment. "I loved her a lot. She was really smart. Saw a lot when she was alive. She told me having her life cut down because of what she did when she was a teenager was probably the only regret she had in life."

A quick sigh. "But, she wouldn't let me cry about her death. In her words, she was only facing the consequences of her own actions. I guess you could say that really drove the point home for me." Her neutral scowl made its way onto her visage. "It's hard to control the urge sometimes, and more than a pain in the ass, but I'm making progress, I think."

The consequences of your own actions, huh? What a way to go out. I liked to think most people lamented the notion of their death and actively made an effort to struggle against it. Willingly coming to terms with your own demise, and even labeling it as a byproduct of your own decisions made in life sounded like a courageous thing to do. What a warrior her grandmother must have been to not only tell Kawasaki that, but also tell her not to waste tears over it.

I supposed it really put things in perspective. Often I hear that the years spent in adolescence don't matter much in the long run, aside from being spent studying for a good career and creating memories to look back on fondly, but I didn't think that was really the case. People tend to develop most, if not all of their general personality while they're young, in addition to establishing the habits and ticks that round out their persona. Of course, people grow and change plenty over the course of a single lifetime, but there is a noticeable link between the tendencies we as people pick up as children and young adults.

That Kawasaki was making an effort to change a negative habit of hers was only a good thing. I could honestly say I was proud of her for doing so. She really could just put her mind to something and get it done with a tenacity I didn't see in many other people.

Though, I couldn't help but think, what did that say about me? I, who had willingly immersed myself in my own self-destructive habits that promoted isolation and solitude above all else, even at the cost of my emotional wellbeing. I was thankful to have mostly grown out of those tendencies, but as I had mentioned previously, I still felt instances where I was hesitant to find any good in the growth I had personally been experiencing, for no discernible reason.

But, I was making my own steps. Just look at who I was talking to. A while ago, I wouldn't have dreamed of having regular conversations with someone I wasn't forced to interact with. Hell, the old me never would have even entertained the thought of confessing to a girl after the incident back in middle school.

I cleared my head of those thoughts. Now was hardly the time for personal reflection. It wasn't as though this conversation was about me, after all. "I'm happy for you."

Her lips slightly curved. "I appreciate you saying that. I have you to thank, partially."

"You do?"

"Obviously. You take up so much of my free time these days, it's pretty hard for me to carve out any time for a smoke break." Despite her words, she didn't sound like she was very miffed at the fact.

"Don't make it sound like I'm monopolizing your time," I retaliated, but that only seemed to egg her on further. "Wouldn't be the worst thing in the world..." she trailed off purposefully. I should have figured she'd say that, damn vixen.

"In all seriousness, thank you." Kawasaki's attention refocused on me, her smile in full view. "You might not know it, but you've helped me make a lot of positive changes in my life, even if you haven't been directly there to see them."

I knew better than to argue about this with her and deny responsibility. It wasn't the worst thing to accept, in any case. "No problem. Just trying to fulfill your request, is all."

She scoffed, but her smile didn't leave. "You're still thinking about that?"

"You're the one who told me that I wasn't allowed to leave until you said so," I reminded her. "Or did you forget about that?" She faltered for the first time, cheeks burning slightly. At least I was able to score one on her.

I was briefly reminded that we were currently on the very roof where she made that request. The very same roof where I ran away from her, on the night of the cultural festival. How ironic it was that the exact same scenario would play out again, only with the roles reversed. I hadn't even thought about that when concocting my plan earlier. Fate's a funny thing, I tell you.

"A-Anyway," she quickly moved on. I guess the memory embarrassed her a little. "Let's get a move on. I'm always willing to help, but I'd rather not go digging through three inches of snow for your sister's bracelet." Dusting her legs and skirt off, she returned to her feet and started to make her way to the other side of the roof.

Well, I guess this is it. The moment of truth. Taking a deep breath, I stood up slowly, attempting to find my voice to call out to her. I eventually got my mouth to work again, despite how dry it suddenly felt. "Kawasaki."

The girl I'd gotten to know quite intimately for the past few months turned to look at me with those piercing amethysts of hers. "Hm? What's up?"

"I..." How was I even supposed to start this? "I'm sorry. There is no bracelet."

Her brow raised. "So it was a necklace then?"

What? "Er, no. What I mean is, the bracelet doesn't exist. I made it up."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. "You... made it up?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry," I bowed reflexively. "The truth is, I wanted a chance to talk with you alone. I know how busy you usually are after school, and I didn't really want to wait to tell you this on the weekend, so I figured I'd just do this now."

If Kawasaki was at all put off by the fact that I lied to her in order to get her alone, she didn't show it. "It's fine, Hachiman. You don't have to make up some excuse to talk to me. I would have come along if you'd just asked me."

Yeah, I guess she would have. It was too late for me to regret the method now, though. "Again, I'm sorry for being so secretive. I promise I'll make this quick." Well, here goes.

"I'm... not the best with words," I started. "Or people, for that matter. I know I like to act like some all-knowing master of societal norms and culture, but you and I both know that I'm not. I just do what I think is the easiest and most logical course of action, even if it ends up hurting me along the way. Which it usually does."

"I used to think that was the unquestionable right way of doing things. To me, the ends always justified the means—so long as everyone left a conflict feeling as though their issue had been even partially resolved, I would go to any lengths to see the deed done and return to the solemn life I always knew. It was dumb, yes, but it was effective. The cynic in me thought that was the right thing to do."

"And has that changed at all?" Kawasaki asked.

"Honestly, I don't know," I replied after a bit of hesitation. "There's still a part of me that clings to the old way I used to do things. Part of me that refuses to give up this way of life I built up for myself over the course of the past few years. I know it's unhealthy and wrong, but it's still me."

An empty laugh escaped my lips. "What's funny is that I never even stopped to consider that how I did things was wrong or harmful. I would lie, deceive, manipulate, or do any kind of underhanded tactic to get the favorable result I wanted. Whether that was to get myself some time alone, or used to solve someone's request, it didn't matter to me. So long as I came out as a beneficiary, I was fine."

I paused. "That was, until you came to me with that request of yours."

Kawasaki's eyes widened, and her mouth opened slightly, but I couldn't stop now. "There wasn't any way I could social suicide my way into fixing your request. I'd dealt with arguments, drama, all kinds of petty quarrels, but your request was different. I actually had to look out for your physical wellbeing. I had never done something like that before, ever. So I had to change the way I did things."

"I started to ask myself why on earth you would trust me for a task of this sort, and for awhile, I didn't understand. I... I know now, obviously," I stuttered briefly. "But even when I found out why, I couldn't believe it. That someone like you—a strong, smart, hard-working woman—would feel that way for a guy like me."

It was faint, but I saw Kawasaki start to blush slightly. I imagined I was too. My fist involuntarily clenched, though out of nerves or otherwise I was unsure.

"Kawasaki, you've made me question things I never even considered questioning before. You've challenged me time and time again, and every time I've come out having learned something about you or myself that I didn't think I'd end up finding. I used to think that was a bad thing, but now... now I know better."

I took a hesitant step forward. "I remember you mentioned to me awhile ago that..." my words failed me for a moment. My voice nearly cracked as I forced out the words I so desperately wanted to say. "... that you wanted to be the one to change my life for the better. While I appreciate the sentiment, after thinking on it for a while, I don't think that's true."

Kawasaki retorted instantly. "But I—"

"I'm not done," I cut off. I know it was rude of me to do so, but I had to see this through to the end. "You don't want to just make my life better. Trying to make sure that my life improves while ignoring your own needs and dreams is parasitic and unhealthy. I don't want a relationship where I have you cater to all my needs while neglecting your own. That isn't fair to you, especially after everything you've already done for me."

"It's... it's presumptuous of me to assume so, but I would think that you want something where the two of us help each other grow, rather than you solely helping me." I only just started to realize that I was shaking slightly. "I think that we would both benefit from entering a kind of relationship founded on mutual respect, trust and..." I swallowed heavily. "... affection."

Kawasaki, bathed in the fading rays of the setting sun, dressed in that modest school uniform I had seen her in countless times, surrounded by a chilling winter air that had us both shivering slightly, watched silently as I pressed on with the words that meant no return.

"I... I lo..." I stammered. "... I'd appreciate it if you would become my significant other, Kawasaki."

It felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but I didn't dare move. It might have been because of the sudden chill that my body seemed frozen and incapable of movement, but I didn't delude myself into thinking that was the sole cause of my silence. In reality, my eyes were glued on the woman across from me, still seeming to absorb my words.

Eventually, her lips parted and words escaped into the chilly air. "I... oh my god. This is really... wow."

I wasn't going to rush her, but the anticipation was killing me. My mind was moving too fast—drowning in all the possible outcomes that could have emerged from this moment in time. I held my breath as I watched her shuffle her feet nervously.

Though I said I wouldn't rush her, I couldn't help but let my nerves get the better of me as she remained silent. "You don't have to give me an answer right away," I hastily tried to assure her. "Seriously, it's fine. It was a bit selfish of me to tell you right out of the blue—"

"No!" Kawasaki quickly cut me off, before recoiling in what looked to be embarrassment. "I mean... Hachiman, you have no idea how happy I am to hear you say that. This is all I've wanted since... I don't even know."

I noticed her eyes start to water, along with the way she was hugging herself tightly. Never mind that I was only aware of those details due to how we had unknowingly moved closer to each other over the course of our conversation. I could even partially hear the speed with which she was breathing.

"I just... I don't know," Kawasaki covered her mouth with her hand. I could hear her voice hitch slightly. "You're sure you want this? You're sure you want... me?"

Despite everything—my own nerves, fear, and overthinking—I had never answered with as much certainty before in my life. "Yes."

That was when her tears started falling. Her sobs were quiet and unobtrusive, but their impact coursed through me all the same. How strange, that she could make me feel this way with only a small display of emotional vulnerability.

Keep in mind that I'm still an awkward, antisocial mess. I've never been the shoulder to cry on, literally or metaphorically, for anyone. Oftentimes I'd relish the misery in my classmates' own emotional breakdowns were I ever lucky enough to witness them in person. Of course, taking any kind of pleasure in Kawasaki's current predicament would not only be incredibly insensitive, but it would also guarantee me a stern ass-kicking.

So, what's a guy to do with a pretty girl crying in front of him? "Be aggressively honest," a wise man had once told me. With that in mind, I did what I thought was appropriate—I pulled Kawasaki into a hug.

I got a little worried when I felt her body flinch against my taller frame, but my fears were assuaged when I felt her eventually lean into me, welcoming the feeling of her arms wrapping around my torso. The sniffling was still there, but it seemed to have died down slightly.

At some point, she turned completely silent, choosing instead to bury her face into my jacket while maintaining her vice grip on me. Not that I minded at all, since it helped to mitigate the dropping temperature. I'd have stayed with her for as long as she wanted anyway. It wasn't the first time she and I had been in an intimate position before, and I doubted it would be the last.

"Are you feeling better?" I whispered in her ear, careful not to sound as though I was irritated with her. A soft hum was her response, and I felt her tight grip on me somehow become even tighter. I imagined how strange this might have looked to potential onlookers, not that there were any.

"I was afraid, you know," Kawasaki eventually got around to speaking. Her voice was soft and muffled. "I was so happy that you and I were... you know, close, that I didn't mind the rumors spreading about us. Hell, a part of me even encouraged them to go even further. I know I make a point of saying that I don't want validation, but... I liked the feeling of us being acknowledged by everyone."

Her gaze returned to me, and I could still see the faint linings of tears along her eyes. "Is that selfish of me? Is it wrong of me to feel that way? I went ahead and basically confirmed to the school that you and I were a thing before you even thought of confessing."

Her lip quivered slightly. "I said I'd let you make the choice, but I basically pressured you into asking me out. God, how horrible of a person am I?"

This time, I tightened my grip on her, drawing her attention back to me. I didn't go as far as to outright smile for her, but I gave her my most comforting smirk. "Don't you know who you're talking to? As if I'd let other people and their worthless opinions influence my decisions."

Ah, yes, that sounded much more like me. It was good to find a bit of familiarity within this whole debacle. My little joke helped ease Kawasaki as well, as she met my smirk with a tiny laugh. "Yeah, I guess that's true."

"Besides," I continued. "This was a decision that I made long before the school knew about it. They can speculate and gossip all they want, but this is still my choice. And..." I felt my face grow hot. "... this is what I chose."

Her face buried itself into my chest once more, and as her arms affectionately clung to my back, I imagined she was rather pleased with my decision.

We didn't speak again for sometime after that, content to simply hold each other in our arms. My eyes lingered on the cloudy sky above—gray in color, with a soft wind. Flurries of snow continued to fall from the sky, landing on and all around the two of us. It wasn't ideal conditions for a confession, but it brought me a great deal of comfort. It reminded me of all the times I had walked her home under these very same conditions.

Eventually, Kawasaki unlatched herself from my body, but her arms loosely wrapped themselves around my nape. Her eyes were still a bit puffy, but the tears had subsided, and she appeared to almost glow against the graying sky. The smile she wore was one I wouldn't ever forget.



"Your question," she clarified. "I'm answering it."

"Oh," I replied. Then, I'd been successful. All of that agonizing and overthinking, washed away with a single word. That's how human emotions work, I guess. Fickle as they are meaningful.

"Though..." now she was suppressing a laugh. "Your significant other? Really?"

"Look, I said I wasn't good with words, okay?" That she could poke fun at me now of all times spoke to the audacity of this woman. Never mind that I was trying to hold back a laugh of my own. "It's the best I could do given the circumstances. Take it or leave it."

"Oh, I'll take it. It was really sweet, in its own way." Her face flushed, but the smile remained. "Makes us sound like more than just boyfriend and girlfriend."

Truthfully, I didn't mind that either.

"I know..." I hesitated slightly. "I know you deserve more than that. I'm still feeling my way around this whole thing, but I promise I'm getting better. Eventually I'll tell you those words you deserve to hear. It's... it's how I truly feel about you. I just want you to know that."

She nodded, her azure-hair flowing behind her in the lingering breeze. Even without words, I knew she understood what I was saying. She had a knack for doing that.

"So just... give me a little more time, okay?" One day, I would tell her. She would undoubtedly know of my feelings for her, if she didn't know them already. She had been brave enough to state hers to me when I had been figuring out my own—I owed her as much to tell her the same. That I did, in fact, love her.

But for now, I was still a confused teenager with a bare understanding of what it meant to cherish someone else. I'd gotten better at it, yes, but there was still a long way for me to go. Baby steps, as I had mentioned previously.

Thankfully, I had a companion who loved me all the same, despite my shortcomings. I was reminded of that as she drew me closer to her.

"I'll wait as long as I need to for you, Hachiman."

Her lips inched closer to mine, and thus, Kawasaki Saki struck.

I finished rewatching OreGairu before the third season dropped. It was a pretty nostalgic experience for me—the show was among the first anime I had ever watched, and it was my first time rewatching the series in its entirety. Suffice to say, reliving the highs and lows of the show was a strange but exciting feeling.

Naturally, seeing Kawasaki on the big screen again was a highlight of my rewatching session. She doesn't get a lot of screen time, and her introductory episode is pretty cut-and-dry, but seeing her for those few minutes was enough to reinforce my belief that the story I wrote was indeed worth it. She's an infinitely interesting character (like most of the cast), and I still believe that there's so much more to her than what the anime and light novels explicitly describe.

It reminded me of how and why I first started writing this story. My first two multi-chapter attempts hadn't been very successful, and I was still a very amateur writer (I still am, to a slightly lesser extent). Still, I had wanted to give this story and genre a shot because I had thought that Kawasaki Saki had been "grossly underrepresented" among the OreGairu community, and I had wanted to change that. I didn't think I stood a chance of measuring up to all of the other amazing stories that featured Yukinoshita and Yuigahama and other girls as the main female lead, but I had wanted to try it anyway.

Now, roughly three and a half years later, I'm wrapping up my first completed long-form story. It's easily my most successful to date, and my most cherished as well. I'm a bit embarrassed that it took me this long to write ten chapters (wouldn't you know that writing and planning is hard?), but the fact that I even managed to finish it serves as a source of pride for me.

To all the readers, who gave their valuable time reading, following, and reviewing this story, I thank you. It might not seem like much, but for a young, amateur writer like myself, seeing a work of mine bring joy to so many people means the world to me. It only pushes me to be that much better in future endeavors as well. The things I've learned while drafting this story will stick with me forever.

I can't wait to see what the third season has in store for us all. We're a fair ways in so far, but I'm already feeling the excitement and heartache. I'm ready to be emotionally gutted.

Though, regardless of what happens this season, one thing is for certain—Kawasaki Saki is best girl. Seeing her dominate the first episode of the new season elicited a series of emotions and sounds from me that's hard to describe. It was a magical experience, and I hope I was able to at least somewhat capture that kind of emotion in this story of mine.

I hope you all enjoyed the story. I know I did. Thank you all again for reading Thus, Kawasaki Saki Strikes.