Senpai has a focused look about him and I reflexively step away because horrible things brew in his mind when he makes that face. Ideas of coercing our partner school into funding an entire collab event, for example. Or worse, letting Yuigahama-senpai handle the kitchen by virtue of her love for baking.
He whips around to face me with an expression of genuine self-satisfaction. "So basically, what you're saying is that humans are banal creatures driven by avarice, and that taking advantage of this will be profitable in the long run."
The hallway is silent save for our muffled footsteps and the chirping of sparrows outside.
"How's that?" he sneers, then to add a little extra fuel to the metaphorical fire he sallies forth with, "Your face says I'm right."
I contort my face to display the most condescending expression I can muster which, unfortunately, has long lost its intended effect on him. "I said we should do something for the elementary schoolers to thank them for their help in the Christmas event-"
"-and in so doing incentivise them to offer their services the next time we need expendable manpower, right?"
There is something about the way he mouths the phrase expendable manpower which really drives home the fact that a society managed by people like Senpai would either cease to function or function too well. Ominous as it sounds, either particular future is improbable; people like Senpai wouldn't touch anything leadership-related with a ten foot pole.
My stare freezes over in a way that even a dense block like him can understand, and the smug look on his face disappears as quickly as it surfaced. "You're suggesting that I take advantage of elementary schoolers."
"Ah, um, well. You know. Pretty much everything you do has an ulterior motive, so I thought, uh."
I'm not too sure what kind of expression he sees on my face, but it shuts him up nonetheless. "You're suggesting that I'm the kind of person that takes advantage of elementary schoolers."
"Not at all. Not in the slightest. Wouldn't dream of it."
He gives up too easily. Irritated, I release a huff which takes form in the frigid air. "What are you thinking, insulting a delicate girl like that? That's the death penalty for you."
He snorts. "We're in Japan, you know."
"A lifetime sentence of bachelorhood, then."
"That'll happen on its own."
We spend the walk across the school courtyard in comfortable silence. Failing to maintain a conversation is equivalent to social suicide in high school; I have spent months studying and practicing in front of a full-body mirror to prevent it from happening to me, but when I'm with Senpai there just isn't any motivation for me to drag it on. One could even say that, to a certain extent, I have grown to dislike such meaningless conversations. It's amazing what loners can do.
Even so, being able to simply watch someone unchain his bicycle without the pressure of having to start a conversation is a blessing.
It is only when the school gate comes within view that I realise, with a jolt of horror, that this admittedly comfortable five minutes of absolute silence is going to be our last interaction of the day. The horror intensifies along with the realisation that Senpai is probably completely fine with this.
Desperately, I clear my throat. (Daintily, just like a cute girl should.) "Say, Senpai. How long are we doing this for?"
"About thirty metres more, by the look of it," he says blandly. His tone is wilfully sarcastic, but I can see the badly-concealed confusion on his face without even looking at him. "That's what we agreed on."
"I meant in general."
Thanks to the Service Club's assistance the collab Christmas event went off without a hitch, but the main problem came the day after. Perhaps my mind had been too occupied by my own romantic conquest to notice, but there had been something very wrong with the Student Council's team dynamic all along.
Not that I had anything against Vice-prez and Secretary-chan individually, of course. But dating within the Student Council was... well. You just didn't do it unless you had absolutely no regard for... ahem. You just didn't do it.
On the other hand, there was no couple in the Service Club and all three of its members seemed pretty set on ensuring that this was so. What it did have was two young maidens in love and a boy who was trying his utmost to avoid a harem ending. It was the most youthful, romcom-esque scenario anyone could think of, the type Senpai hates with every fibre of his being.
Our objectives aligned nicely, so a sort of partnership had been born.
"It's your call, I guess," Senpai concludes after thinking for a few moments. "I don't know how this is helping you with your issues, but I'll have to face Yukinoshita and Yuigahama at some point anyway. We'll stop whenever you want to."
I sigh dramatically. "How hopeless. You should be using your guy friends for this kind of thing instead of dragging a pure maiden into your wily schemes..."
"You're just as guilty," he retorts. "And Totsuka is 80000 times purer than you. No way I'm using him for this."
We walk in silence.
"...This is the bit where you give the 'You have friends?' retort. Don't leave people hanging like that."
I flash a stunned expression. "Ah, I didn't mean to. I was genuinely surprised."
"You can afford to be a little less cruel about it, you know," he groans. "Is it really that surprising that there are people that I consider friends?"
I sigh. "It's surprising that there are people who would hang out with you in the first place..."
"...Without any sort of ulterior motive."
We've reached the school gate faster than expected. Semi-reluctant to let him off the hook, I turn to face him. "This Totsuka person... Senpai, are both of you close?"
He chokes in response, and a blush tinges his cheeks for some weird reason. "It's... it's complicated."
I deadpan. "Unrequited love?"
"Like I said, it's complicated. We're supposed to be friends but we don't really act like it-"
"Then what is he to you?"
Senpai eyes me suspiciously; it is a weird question, after all. But I know that all he can see is a wide, innocent smile. "How I view Totsuka? Well, it's probably the same as how a lonely priest views... uh..."
"A really attractive lady?"
"An angel." He declares this with such devout certainty that I giggle uncontrollably (not completely uncontrollably, of course; God forbid I do anything unladylike like snorting), and he shoots me a look of annoyance. "Laugh all you want, but that's our relationship in a nutshell. I am of the opinion that interpersonal relations which normal people form are shallow and farcical. Frankly, what society defines as normal relationships are not worth having."
That may be so, but the nature of the relationships Senpai defines as being 'worth having' seem a tad too abnormal for me.
"Then... what am I to you, Senpai?"
Wide, innocent smile.
I can almost see his thoughts from where I'm standing - notably oh crap she planned this from the start and can this junior possibly be even more devilish than she already is - but I'm not that calculative, really.
This is probably one of those 'heat of the moment' things. In fact, I already regret asking.
Senpai clears his throat after a long pause, his face still red (thanks, Totsuka-san). "I'd say an anno-"
"You wouldn't dream of saying anything along the lines of 'An annoying junior', would you, Senpai?"
"A junior I accompany to the school gate every da-"
"And no half-assed answers."
Defying the laws of physics (and possibly biology), his dead-fish eyes narrow to slits. "A wonderful individual whom I greatly admi-"
Senpai's groan of exhaustion urges me to widen my smile even further. It can't be that hard to tell what I'm getting at, right? Meaningless as the question may be, I want an honest answer.
"To me, you're you," he says, finally. "Isshiki Iroha. And that's it."
Along the path ahead, street lamps flicker to life.
"...What's with that annoyed face?"
I huff. "You thought for that long and that's all you could come up with?"
"If shallow affirmation is what you want, go ask someone else." He grunts, preparing to mount his bicycle. "You can't expect me to know all the politically correct answers, anyhow."
Upon getting into a comfortable position he turns to face me; maybe he finds my (rare) silence off-putting. "See you tomorrow, I guess. And I meant what I said."
"Mm? About what?"
"I don't care if we stop this whole... arrangement anytime you want, so there's no need to force yourself to do anything you're... uncomfortable with. Not that I care either way-"
Yup. This is definitely the kind of person he is. Geez. Is it that hard to say what you're thinking for once?
Well, not that I'm one to talk.
"Don't be silly."
The evening cold gnaws at my fingertips and I shove my hands into my sweater, clenching them tightly for good measure.
There is a sort of inexplicable tension hanging in the air. Maybe another wide, kouhai-level smile will break it, but I'm just as stunned as he is.
Behold, the second 'heat of the moment' thing for today. That's two too many. I let my guard down for a second and this happens...
"R-right. See you, then."
Fortunately, Senpai is the first to flee.
As his bicycle disappears into the horizon I absentmindedly pivot around on my left heel and head for the station, rolling the words from before around in my mouth like a mantra.
"Just Isshiki Iroha, huh..."
That doesn't sound too bad.
Author's Note: This was supposed to be a oneshot but I decided to split it up because it was really long. There is plot later on, I swear. This is my first story, so please roast my writing, personality and face as much as you see fit.