AN: Hello and welcome back, dear readers! Your favourite terrible-with-his-update-schedules Author is back with another chapter to this story. Man, it's been a crazy two weeks, but I guess that just means that this year is starting off with a blast, huh? Wait… what do you mean it's June? What in the fuck give me back the first half of this year!
Joking aside (though it really does feel like that sometimes – time flows too quickly), March was not a good month for me in terms of writing, due to some important exams in the latter half of it, and then in April I was just… lazy. Also NieR: Replicant released so I've been playing that a lot. Sorry for the delay, is really all I can say right now. More at the bottom author's note.

One thing I want to quickly address here was something mentioned in a review I saw: A certain membership-based platform for artists and other creators. To answer the question in the review, I do not have an account on that site, nor have I ever thought of setting one up. I write because I enjoy doing it, and I've never thought of monetizing this hobby. I mean, if people really want to give money to me for this stuff, I guess I can't stop them, but I'm not even really sure what I could put up on there. If there's interest for it I might think about it.

Now, enough of that, and let's get this chapter underway! This chapter is a beeg one, so strap yourselves in and get ready for some spicy stuff!

Chapter 12 – The Pieces are Set

"...Yukinoshita Haruno. What are you doing here?"

"Aw, what's with the tone of voice? Aren't you happy to see your onee-chan, Hikigaya-kun? Though, I can see that you've chosen some different company today… I wonder how Yukino-chan would react if I told her..?"

The eerie smile on Yukinoshita Haruno's face made me feel uncomfortable, but I kept a straight face and didn't let it show. Miura let go of me and quickly wiped her eyes as she also turned to fully face Haruno, and I noticed her eyes moving down to the blonde's scarf and lingering there for a brief moment, before she met my gaze again.

"You didn't answer my question." I replied to Haruno and glanced briefly at Miura, who was in the midst of composing herself again. I felt my heart throb as I looked at her and had to avert my eyes quickly, though. The things Miura said, and their effect on me… I can't just ignore all that, but dealing with Haruno takes priority right now.

"Ooh, being assertive, are we? I like it." Haruno said with a cheeky smile, but very quickly her face became serious, and I couldn't help but draw a parallel to my encounter with Hayama earlier in the week. "Shizuka-chan called me and said there was something important she wanted to talk about, so I'm on my way to meet her. As I was passing here, I couldn't help but notice you, Hikigaya-kun. What surprised me was seeing you here with her." I saw Miura's eyes widening briefly as Haruno mentioned meeting with Miss Hiratsuka, but otherwise she had no reaction to her so far. "Now, I answered your question, so it's only fair play if you answer a question I have. What were you doing here with… Miura-san, was it? A date, perhaps?" Haruno took a step closer to us as her eyes scanned us, gaining a dangerous glint to them as they passed over mine and Miura's scarves. I hope she doesn't get any weird ideas just because our scarves happen to have a similar pattern… We just bought them from the same store because it was convenient, and because Miura wanted to get a gift for me to thank me, that is all.

"No, this is not a date. I was looking after a classmate's younger sibling and Miura happened to walk by, then decided to keep us company." Haruno lifted an eyebrow and looked around the playground, but no-one other than the three of us was present. "Our classmate just came to pick up her sister not too long ago, and we were just about to leave as well. You might have even passed them, depending on which direction you came from. You're free to believe whatever you want, but it's the truth." Haruno kept her gaze locked with mine for a few seconds, before shifting it to Miura.

"A likely story, but that doesn't explain what I saw as I arrived here. Quite an intimate display, if I do say so myself. And the things you said to Hikigaya-kun? Something about helping him, because he shouldn't hurt himself any longer..?" How much did she hear, exactly..? I saw Miura's hand balling up to a fist, and before I could respond to Haruno's words, she took a step forwards.

"This has nothing to do with you." Miura said to Haruno in a cold voice, and while the older woman's initial reaction to Miura's words was unamused, Haruno paused for a moment upon seeing the blonde's expression, and her own began to shift rapidly into one of intrigue. "Eavesdropping on other people is not very polite, and neither is interrupting an… emotional moment."

"Oh, but that's where you're wrong, Miura-san, this has everything to do with me! You see, Hikigaya-kun here will one day be my brother-in-law, so as his big sis I need to make sure he doesn't go around cheating on poor Yukino-chan." Haruno's tone of voice was playful as she tilted her head towards me, while Miura narrowed her eyes at the older woman and glanced at me briefly. "What about you, then? I thought you were just another part Hayato's entourage, but your presence here suggests something less… boring." The glint in Haruno's eyes made me shiver, and I felt my own hand balling up into a fist as well. I can easily see why Haruno would think the old Miura to be 'boring'… I looked to Miura next to me, and the glare she was directing at Haruno told me everything I needed to know about her thoughts regarding her words.

"...I can't deny that I've been chasing after Hayato's shadow all this time, but things have changed. The Hayato I know is a fake, and you're the reason for him being that way." Haruno's eyes widened briefly, but she expertly hid her surprise quickly enough to make anyone without my level of perception miss it. "And to my knowledge, Hikio and your sister are not in any sort of relationship, so he can spend time with anyone he wants." Miura crossed her arms as she kept glaring at Haruno, who simply smiled back at her, completely unfazed.

"Bravo! It seems Hayato's girl repellent has finally seen the truth. Perhaps you were more interesting than I initially thought, Miura-san." Haruno said and clapped slowly, but as Miura was about to rebuke, she spoke again. "No need to get angry, I speak in jest, obviously. But, you said that I made Hayato into what he is today? Please, taking all the credit is too much for little old me. Hayato became boring all on his own." Haruno's tone of voice changed to indicate the subject boring her, and her expression matched that. If… she's telling the truth here… That would mean Haruno is not responsible for making Hayama wear the mask and close himself off – at least not directly. But she definitely knows something. "...Oh, now there's an idea. Maybe you would be able to make Hayato less boring, hm?"

"What… do you mean by that?" Miura asked from Haruno with a raised eyebrow, and even I found myself a little confused by her words. I know Haruno considers Hayama 'boring' because he doesn't pick sides and tries to appease everyone, keeping up the status quo in his clique… But what exactly would she consider to be 'interesting' then? I almost dread to think it.

"You said that the Hayato you know is a 'fake', right? Don't you want to change him? Make him… open up?" Miura's eyes widened momentarily, before she narrowed them again in suspicion.

"...What do you know about Hayato? Why… is he the way he is?" Miura asked in a low tone, and Haruno smiled at her mysteriously, then shrugged.

"I know a lot of things about him. Did you know he used to write me letters when we were younger? I think he looked up to me a lot back then, until… Well, until he saw what the world really is like." Haruno turned her gaze upwards and stared at the sky quietly for a few seconds, the smile never leaving her face, before she looked to Miura again. What the world really is like… Hayama used the same wording with me on Tuesday. "I can't help you with that, sorry. You'll have to squeeze it out of him directly. He doesn't particularly like talking about those days, though, so good luck." I felt my brows furrowing at Haruno's words. So it goes back full circle. I couldn't get anything more out of Hayama than what I already did, so turning to Haruno became our only choice, and now she's directed us back to Hayama… This is turning into a weird game of ping-pong… And it also likely means that not even Yukinoshita will be able to get anything out of her sister, though I don't think either of us really believed the chances for that to be high anyway. "But, enough about Hayato, I want to know how you two became friends – I don't remember anything of the sort from the last time I met you, Hikigaya-kun." Haruno moved closer to me, and I restrained myself from moving away, even as the scent of her perfume started to waft towards me.

"We aren't…" I began to refute her statement, but stopped once I saw the Fire Queen sending a glare my way. If she's forcing me to accept us being friends, can you call that friendship..? Sounds more like she's blackmailing me or something"Ahem. We just… got to know each other better recently, and that's it. Who I let into my social circle is none of your business anyway." I gave Haruno a stern look, and saw a small smile appearing on Miura's face.

"…" Haruno simply looked at me in silence for a few seconds, to the point where I began to feel slightly uncomfortable, but eventually she closed her eyes and took a step back. "...I see. Your onee-chan is just starting to feel a little lonely, and maybe a bit jealous, since you only seem to be letting girl after girl into your social circle." Haruno glanced briefly at Miura, then formed eye contact with me again. "I suppose that just means I'll have to be keeping a closer eye on you, then." She said with a wink, then took another step away. "Well, I'd best get going now. I don't want to keep Shizuka-chan waiting." With a raise of her hand acting as her goodbye, Haruno turned and began to walk away from us, only to stop after a few steps and look back at us over her shoulder. "Oh, but one final thing… Helping someone is not always the right thing to do – it can be selfish. We all have to learn to help ourselves first, before we lean on someone else. If you don't, you'll eventually fall when you're left to stand on your own." For a moment, Haruno's expression was deadly serious, before her mysterious smile returned. "Cute scarves." With those words, Haruno turned away and continued to walk away, this time not looking back at us.

Miura and I watched in silence as Haruno left the playground, neither of us speaking or moving until her distant form disappeared. Her parting words, however, kept echoing in my mind. It was clear she was referencing what she had overheard from us before – that Miura wanted to help me, so I would stop hurting myself – but I couldn't help but think of Yukinoshita as well, given my feelings towards her, and where those feelings partially stemmed from. Yukinoshita needs someone to help her as a supporting pillar she can lean on… Or that's what I think. How selfish must it be of me to think that way, and to believe – to want – for that person to be me?

"...What the heck is her deal?" Miura spoke to break the silence, and I was pulled out of my thoughts, though I actively avoided looking at her, being reminded of the things that had transpired just before Haruno had made her appearance. All of a sudden, I was very conscious of Miura's presence, much like whenever I was around a certain someone.

"That's just… the way Yukinoshita Haruno is." I replied, only glancing at Miura out of the corner of my eye. That feeling just then… It felt too real to have just been something fleeting. But… why, and how? I'm already in love with Yukinoshita, I've accepted that, so why…

...Why did Miura's words affect me like that?

"Hmph, she certainly managed to ruin the mood…" Miura grumbled, and I saw her wiping the corners of her eyes again, before she took a deep breath and moved in front of me, forcing me to look at her. "Hikio. You'll take what I said seriously, right? I… I care about you, and Iknowthat I'm not the only one who does, so you need to stop hurting yourself and ignoring your own pain. I told you my story, and you're helping me, so… let me return the favour. I'll listen to anything you have to say, Hikio, and I'll help, just like you did for me." Miura was looking me directly in the eyes, giving me no routes to escape, and I felt my heartbeat increasing slightly. In my mind, the words said by Haruno floated about alongside the numerous lectures Miss Hiratsuka has given me. What… is the right thing to do here?

Both Miura and Miss Hiratsuka, as well as the girls from the Service Club, think that the way I solve things hurts not only myself, but also them, because they… care about me. I cannot deny harbouring similar feelings towards them all, so recently I've tried to stray away from my usual methods when it comes to solving requests the club receives. And now, Miura is upset that I'm downplaying and ignoring the things that have hurt me – in the past or in the present – and is offering to help me the way I've apparently helped her. However…

Should I accept that help?

Do I deserve it?

Do I need it?

Miss Hiratsuka said that we hurt other people just by existing, it's something we can't avoid. So then, if I'm going to hurt those close to me anyway… Is there a reason for me to stop doing things my way – the most efficient way – and not continue as I have until now, burying the past and ignoring the things found there? And, what Haruno said does have logic behind it. If I accept help from Miura – or anyone – right now, won't that just make me fall when they're no longer helping me? I like to think of myself as someone who is capable of standing alone on their own, I've been doing it ever since Middle school, after all. And yet, seeing Yukinoshita, someone in a similar position to myself, who has become someone I want to support, and hearing Miura's declaration…

Both of those things are making the image I have of myself crumble.

So, what do I do?

"You don't understand emotions."

As I looked into Miura's eyes, specific bits from the conversation I had with Miss Hiratsuka the day before I made my request for something "genuine" started to come to the foreground of my thoughts.

"If you can only think in terms of calculations, then calculate it."

"The answer left behind because you couldn't calculate it is what you call 'human emotion'."

If I think about it like she told me to, I do have a reason to stop doing things that hurt me, even if they are the most efficient methods, just like I have a reason to selfishly want to help Yukinoshita, or to accept the help Miura is offering me regarding the pain I've endured.

Miss Hiratsuka is right – I don't understand emotions. I know I love Yukinoshita Yukino, but I don't understand those feelings fully. And due to that, I also don't quite understand why I want to help Yukinoshita without knowing if she wants it or not, even when it is illogical to do so. I know Miura feels greatly indebted to me, but I don't understand why she feels that way. And I certainly don't understand this emotion inside me right now as I'm looking at Miura when she is so close to me. But the most baffling thing right now, is that this Monster of Logic…

...Is about to make decisions based purely on emotion.

Just like I had done that night on Miss Hiratsuka's orders, I calculated and calculated, and the answer I came to after eliminating everything else was simple:

I truly care about these people around me – Yukinoshita, Yuigahama, Miura, and the rest – and that is reason enough to want to help them, or be helped by them, even when it is illogical. After all, emotions, by their very nature, are completely illogical. Perhaps I had known it for a while now, but had simply refused to acknowledge this fact, thinking that I would do fine on my own without the need for emotional attachments to other people.

If helping Yukinoshita now means she'll fall in the future, I'll just need to make sure I keep on supporting her, so that never happens.

If Miura helping me now means that I'll fall in the future… Well, I find myself doubting if that will happen.

I trust her and the others to be able to prevent that.

...Eugh, that was really sappy. Damn you, personal relationships, for slaying the Monster of Logic that resides within me!

"...I will, Miura." Miura seemed to jump as I spoke, and I realized I must have stayed silent for a good while. Quickly though, her expression broke into a smile, and I saw her eyes glisten, as if she was about to cry again. The sight made my heartbeat increase again, so I had to avert my eyes. One pressing matter still is… this. It… can't be the obvious that my mind goes to immediately – that would be ridiculous – so what is it then? Why is Miura all of a sudden making me feel like this?

"Thanks, Hikio. I… I don't want to see the same things happening to you that happened to me, so… Y-you promise, right? That you'll stop downplaying your pain, and let me listen to your worries?" I saw Miura crossing her hands in front of her chest as she looked at me pleadingly, her alluring green eyes threatening to start tearing up again at any moment.

"I… can't really refuse any more…" I replied and awkwardly rubbed the back of my neck as Miura smiled at me again. "But… can the whole… listening thing wait a little bit? Just… Time and place, you know?" I'm not really sure about… telling others of everything. I've been avoiding it because the past doesn't bother me, and I don't want to be pitied by others, but maybe… it won't do any harm to tell Miura. She opened up to me about her own past, and seems to take this whole thing very seriously. I like to think none of the things that have happened affect me, but…

...I can't say that it has always been easy.

"O-of course! I didn't mean that we needed to like, do it right now. Just… Whenever you're ready, okay?" Miura's words were laced with sympathy, something which I, on the rare occasions I received it, would usually scoff at, but coming from Miura… it felt different. This change… It's odd, and a bit scary, but not entirely unpleasant. In such a short amount of time, I've gotten very comfortable with being around Miura… Realizing that the girl in front of me was waiting for a response, I gave her a slow nod, and Miura relaxed again.

"...I should probably start heading home soon, before Komachi gets worried." I said after a while of silence and checked the time. There are things I need to think about on my own. I need to find out what this… emotion means.

"Ah, yes, I should… get going as well." Miura's gaze moved over to where our things were, next to the swing, and I saw her biting her lip. Going back to her parents… I can now understand how much discomfort that must bring her, but… I can't really help her with it. "We'll… meet tomorrow, right? At your club?" Miura turned her gaze back to me, and I nodded to her.

"Yeah, since we'll be discussing what your plans are with your clique. You and Ebina need to come up with something for that." Miura nodded to me in return, and after a moment's pause, I moved over to my bag and slung it over my shoulder. "I… guess I'll see you tomorrow, Miura." I kept my gaze on Miura for a moment, and when she didn't move, I began to walk past her towards where I'd left my bike, but I was suddenly stopped by Miura grabbing onto my sleeve. "Miura..?"

"...Yumiko." Miura's face was turned away from me, and she muttered something quietly, and I only managed to catch that she'd said her own name. What… does she want? After I stayed quiet for a few seconds, Miura turned to look at me again, and I saw that her cheeks were slightly flushed. "C-call me Yumiko. I-I mean, we're like, friends, so it feels weird that you like, keep calling me by my last name even when I call you Hikio." Miura's words came out of her mouth in quick succession, and she actively avoided meeting my eyes as she spoke.

"...Eh?" She… wants me to call her by her first name..? The situation must have caused Miura's sudden awkwardness to rub off on me, as I started to feel embarrassed at the prospect of calling her by her first name, and had to look away as well. "W-what's this all of a sudden?"

"L-like I said, it's weird that you're using my last name when we're friends! What, are you e-embarrassed to say it?" Miura challenged me with her words, but she was simultaneously nervously playing with one of her curls. O-oi, you're the one that looks embarrassed! Agh, whatever. It's not a big deal. I sighed, exhaling a puff of white breath.

"Fine. Y-Yumiko." I suppressed the embarrassment of calling a pretty girl by her first name to the best of my ability, and saw Miura freezing in place. Okay, that was a bigger deal than I anticipated… A few moments passed in silence, and Miura's lack of reaction made the situation feel even more awkward. "So… I'll talk to you tomorrow… Yumiko." Calling her by her name a second time seemed to get Miura out of her stunned state, as she blinked once, then hastily replied.

"A-ah, yes, I'll s-see you tomorrow, Hikio." After hearing her reply, I nodded to Miura, then raised a hand and began to make my way towards my bike again.

This time, Miura didn't object to me leaving, and as I made it to my bike, I glanced back to see her picking up her own things. Once she saw me looking back at her, Miura offered me a wave, which I returned to her, before dislodging my bike from the bike rack and starting to walk it out of the park. I guess we could probably walk together… Though, knowing where Miura lives, she'd probably take the train, while I'm on a bike, so we'd go in different directions. Besides, I need some time to think by myself. I stole one last glance back at Miura, seeing her tapping away at her phone, before I mounted my bike and started to ride down the street.

The emotion I had felt inside of me when Miura spoke out her mind and said she wanted to help me was one familiar to me, though the reason for that familiarity made it all the more puzzling. There was only one other person towards whom I had felt anything like that – Yukinoshita Yukino. I had already questioned the things I felt towards Miura before, and made a connection between the similarity between that and my feelings towards Yukinoshita, but precisely because of that similarity…

...It made things all the more complicated.

I love Yukinoshita Yukino, that much was certain. I feel like I want to support and protect her, even more so than someone like my little sister, who I want to protect because of my instincts as an older brother. But… I also feel something similar towards Miura – now more than ever, having heard about her past. What does that mean for these feelings? I know I care about Miura, at least more than most people I know, and that… love can take on multiple forms, so is this just an extension of that? It is the answer that puts my heart most at ease: I simply want to help and support Miura because she's shown me weakness, and I care about her, as if she were Komachi.

But that doesn't feel like the right answer.

It doesn't explain the similarities between what Yukinoshita makes me feel, and what Miura made me feel just now. And those similarities hint at something that definitely doesn't put my heart at ease. I need more time. I need time to compare, analyse, and test these emotions within me. I can't jump to conclusions – that could have very well have just been something momentary. I refuse to accept the implications before I am sure of everything. I can compare and analyse as much as I want when I get home, but the last of the three…

...Will have to come tomorrow, when I'll be able to meet both Yukinoshita and Miura at the same time.

I lifted the teacup to my lips and took a sip of the beverage within, then turned the page in the novel I was reading. For belonging to a genre infamous for its less-than-favourable portrayal of female characters, the title recommended to me by Hachi was quite good. After having read the first volume when I visited Hachi last weekend, I sought out the second volume from one of the local bookstores, and was somewhat surprised to see it still being sold, given how old Hachi had said the series was. Though, I suppose that is also testament to the series' popularity, something which Hachi mentioned and what I was able to confirm through some quick browsing on the internet. Taking another sip of my tea, I looked up at the clock on the wall, confirming that I should still have at least some time to myself before the time my sister said she'd arrive by. Nee-san told me she would stay over for the weekend due to some event she'd have to attend, but I don't see why she couldn't simply stay home for it, if Mother is also attending… Though, I suppose she would take any opportunity to mess with me. I let out a sigh and gently placed the cup back on the table in front of me, then resumed my reading. It does give me the opportunity to ask about Hayama-kun, like I promised in order to aid with Miura-san's request, but I find myself doubting her willingness to cooperate on the matter.

Shaking my head slightly to clear my thoughts, I immersed myself back into the novel, when all of a sudden I heard rustling coming from the door to my apartment. I was about to rise from my seat as my curiosity peaked when the door opened, and the calm, quiet atmosphere perfect for reading was suddenly shattered as my older sister walked through the door.

"Tadaima! Ah, Yukino-chan! It's so good to see you again." Nee-san said with a beaming smile as she closed the door behind her and dropped her bags on the floor by the entrance.

"...Nee-san. This is not your home, so please refrain from using that phrase. And, if I may inquire, how did you get in?" I asked as my sister began to take off her outerwear and shoes. She has surprisingly little with her, considering she's going to spend four nights here…

"With a key of course, silly!" My sister replied and flashed me a key, before dropping it into her pocket again. "It wasn't that hard to acquire a spare key, this apartment is still technically owned by Father, after all." ...I don't particularly like the idea of Nee-san having free access to a spare key to here, but I'll just have to live with it. I suppressed a sigh and closed the novel I was reading after placing in a bookmark, figuring that I wouldn't get a chance to return to it at least for some time.

"...I suppose you aren't wrong. But, weren't you supposed to arrive later? I… haven't quite gotten everything ready." I asked as my sister walked up to me, haphazardly throwing her bag onto the couch next to me.

"Shizuka-chan called for me today, and I wasn't sure how long our meeting would last, that's why the time I told you was a pre-emptive assumption. Turns out, Shizuka-chan didn't really have much to talk about – or rather, I didn't have much to say to her." Nee-san explained to me. Hiratsuka-sensei did? I wonder what called for the occasion… "Hm? What's that you're reading?" My sister leaned over my shoulder and reached for my lap, towards the novel I had been reading. Before I could stop her, she had snatched it and began to inspect the cover – featuring the female protagonist of the series looking over her shoulder – while ignoring the glare I was sending her. "Oh, this is a Light Novel, isn't it? Since when have you been into reading these? I thought you had some quite… strong opinions on this genre of literature." She then asked and began to read the synopsis at the back of the novel.

"Yes, you would be correct, but I have recently found out that not everything in it shares the same traits as the worst offenders do. This one was recommended to me by Hikigaya-kun." I replied, not really feeling up to starting anything with my sister – she'd only take joy in knowing she gets on my nerves, no doubt.

"Hmmm… I see. He's got good taste, though I personally find these quite boring." Nee-san said as she handed the book back to me, then pointed at my teacup. "Did you only make one cup?"

"No, there should be enough for another in the teapot." I was originally going to drink the second cup by myself as well, but seeing as my reading has now been interrupted, there's not really any point. My sister nodded to me, then headed to the kitchen, and I lifted my teacup for a sip.

"Speaking of Hikigaya-kun… Did you know he's become all friendly with that blonde girl who always follows Hayato around? Or, at least used to." Nee-san asked from the kitchen, and I tensed up momentarily, but relaxed myself quickly. Did she find that out from Hiratsuka-sensei?

"The Service Club is currently helping Miura-san with a request, so yes, I am aware. Did Hiratsuka-sensei tell you about it?" I asked in turn.

"No, I saw the two of them together before I met up with Shizuka-chan." I froze upon hearing my sister's words, and turned to look at her as she was pouring herself a cup of tea. Hachi and… Miura-san? Together? But Hachi said he was looking after Kawasaki-san's younger sister… He wouldn't lie to me, would he? "As I was making my way to the train station, I walked past Takasu Park, the one near the community centre, and happened to notice a familiar face at the playground there. When I decided to see what Hikigaya-kun was up to, I ended up interrupting a rather intimate scene between him and Miura-san." My sister looked back at me with a smile, and I knew she was messing with me on purpose, so I kept my cool. Calm down, Yukino. Hachi said that he'd take Kawasaki-san's sister to a park, and there is an elementary school right by the community centre, so I do not believe he lied to me. Miura-san, though… Could she have appeared there on accident, or did she seek out Hachi on purpose?

"...What do you mean by 'intimate', Nee-san?" I asked, trying to keep my voice as neutral as possible while my mind raced with the possibilities. If she's made a move of Hachi, despite my… suggestions on Monday…

"Ah, it was so pure and lovely. She had poor Hikigaya-kun grabbed by the collar as she poured all of her feelings to him with tears in her eyes." My sister was making over-the-top theatrical gestures with her free hand as she walked back over to me with her tea. "It was quite funny to see him so speechless, but it was even more hilarious to hear what she actually said to him. I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud." I followed Nee-san with my gaze as she sat down opposite to me, my nails digging into my palm as I clenched my fist. She's doing this on purpose. Just… keep calm, Yukino. Nee-san doesn't need to know about my… impulses.

"...And what did she say?" I asked when my sister paused to take a sip of her tea, hoping that her talkativeness would continue long enough for me to pry information out of her.

"She offered to – get this – help him. She told him to stop hurting himself because it apparently hurts her whenever he does. Quite a selfish way of thinking, isn't it? Forcing someone else to change and masking it under the guise of 'helping'… I don't know which is worse for poor Hikigaya-kun, that or the codependency that is holding him back." My sister leaned forwards and rested her head on her hands as she looked me in the eyes, her trademark smile plastered onto her face. Offering… to help him? Of course… So, Miura-san has made a move – just not the move I was expecting. She's trying to appeal to his past, his scars, the ones I am meant to help heal.But…

"…'Codependency'?" Nee-san's smile seemed to widen slightly as the word left my mouth, and she closed her eyes while bringing her teacup up to her lips for another sip. She can't mean… us? The club?

"Wouldn't you like to know that? I think that's something you'll need to figure out amongst yourselves." My sister replied with a mysterious smile as she met my gaze again. She is talking about us, then. But calling what we have in the club 'codependency'? I know Nee-san likes to meddle in my affairs more than I deem acceptable, but I doubt simply aggravating me was her goal with such insinuations... What exactly is she trying to instigate here..? I tried to gauge something – anything – from my sister's expression, but she was as unreadable as usual. After a few seconds, perhaps seeing that I didn't display any outwards reaction, Nee-san let out a sigh and leaned back in her seat. "Ugh, but what a pain it is, having to tag along with Mother this weekend. You wouldn't be interested in going in my place, Yukino-chan?" So, she's changed the subject, now… Well, I have more pressing matters anyway, so dealing with Nee-san and her machinations can wait.

"I must respectfully decline the offer. Even if I did want to go, it would be you they want to see at the event, as the heir." I replied and took a sip of my tea. "What is this event you're going to, anyway? If Mother is going, it must be important."

"Oh, just some standard, boring stuff. People who think they're all high and mighty because they happen to have a bit of cash meeting up to talk about something boring." Nee-san replied and dismissively waved her hand.While crude, I cannot deny the description's accuracy..."Though, there's supposed to be some big names appearing, and not just from Chiba, but other prefectures as well. Apart from us, there'll be representatives from families like the Sakakis, Suzutsukis, Momobamis and so forth – the usual suspects whenever stuff like this happens. Mother called it an 'opportunity to make connections' as if we don't all already know each other inside and out by this point. Oh, and the Hayamas will be there too, obviously, so unless I run into someone interesting, I'll probably end up having to stick by Hayato the entire time. I swear, sometimes I think Mother is trying to set me up with him…" My sister sighed again as she leaned on her arm and gazed at nothing in particular with a bored look on her face. While I have managed to avoid most of events like this, having been to a few before, I can at least sympathize with Nee-san's exasperation. Now that she's mentioned Hayama-kun, though…

"...Speaking of Hayama-kun, you wouldn't happen to know what might have happened to him in middle school? Back when he… changed. You must remember that time, right?" I queried from my sister, who moved her eyes to me, her expression back to neutral. I doubt I'll get much out of her, but… I did promise to at least try.

"…" Nee-san stared at me quietly for multiple seconds, unmoving, until she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then spoke once she opened her eyes again. "Funny, you're the third person to ask me about Hayato today, Yukino-chan. First Miura-san, then Shizuka-chan, and now you… This wouldn't be for the 'request' from Miura-san you mentioned, would it?" My sister's words caught me off-guard, and my reaction did not go unnoticed by her. I can understand Miura-san asking her about the subject – it was more of a surprise to hear that she had met Nee-san today – but Hiratsuka-sensei as well? Was that the reason she wanted to talk to Nee-san today? But what for would she need to ask her about Hayama-kun..? "...No matter, I can piece together some things on my own. Well, I'll tell you the same thing I told both of them." Nee-san paused and fixated her gaze on me, and I felt myself reflexively tensing up slightly. "Whatever caused Hayato to 'change' as you put it, wasn't my doing – at least not intentionally. He decided to become boring out of his own volition." My sister leaned back in her seat and took another sip of her tea, while I lowered my gaze in thought. ...Nee-san definitely had something to do with it, though.

Due to our families, Hayama has always been close to the two of us, but I remember that back in middle school, he was especially close with Nee-san, until when he suddenly seemed to lose all of his friends. I think he frequently corresponded with her via letters… Wait… Hayama-kun's letters also stopped coming around that time. I closed my eyes to help me focus on my memories from middle school, recalling every little detail about what Hayama's and Nee-san's relationship was like back then. Things I had much rather have forgotten resurfaced, but between them, bits of information began to form into a picture, and my eyes shot open as I looked back up at Nee-san.

Could it be?

"...You rejected him. Back when we were in middle school." I said the conclusion I had come to in my head out loud, and my sister raised an eyebrow, intrigued, but keeping quiet. "I remember you used to tell me about the letters he sent you, until one day they stopped coming, and Hayama-kun stopped sticking to you like he had done before. That was also around the same time he started to distance himself from others at school, and when he eventually made friends again, there was something different about the way he interacted with them." All the pieces, all the answers, had been in front of me the entire time, I just hadn't acknowledged them. I had never made the connection before, because I had no reason to focus on the relationship between them until Miura-san's request, but it's clear as day, now. Hayama-kun's relationship with my sister – and by extension, with me – changed alongside the way he interacted with people at school. This would mean his brief 'loner phase' wasn't caused by his mask, and that subsequently, he only started wearing it afterwards – at least, that's the most plausible explanation right now."Hayama-kun liked you, Nee-san, but you rejected him, and that greatly affected him, causing him to change how he interacted with people. And that's how we get to the Hayama-kun of today. Am I correct?" Nee-san motionlessly stared at me for a few seconds, then slowly lowered her teacup and placed it back down onto the table.

"...Hayato was naive back then. He didn't understand how the world – our world – worked, and was blissfully ignorant to the things going on behind closed doors. You were more or less the same. Meanwhile, Mother and Father had long since begun the process of grooming me into becoming the perfect Yukinoshita heir, so I was more than acquainted with everything." Nee-san paused for a brief moment and let out a sigh, as if she was lamenting on having lost something. I don't think being the heir is necessarily a burden to Nee-san, but if given the choice… I don't believe she would go for it."Those letters of his were kind of cute at first, if a bit old-fashioned, but after a while it became evident where he was going with them, and the idea wasn't very appealing to me. So, when he asked to speak to me privately about something after a joint family dinner… I knew I had to set him straight and teach him a little about the kind of world me and him inhabited as the eldest children of our respective, upper class families." A joint family dinner… It would have likely been on New Year's eve, so the timing would have matched with being close to the end of our second year of middle school – right when Hayama-kun began to distance himself from others before starting new friendships at the start of of third year. "However… That was all I did. I opened Hayato's eyes, but his reaction to what he saw was his own. I am not responsible for the choices he made and the things he did afterwards – his own family is the bigger culprit. Make of all that what you will." Nee-san lifted her teacup again as she finished, this time drinking down all the rest of its contents in one go. "I think we've chatted enough, now. I'll go ahead and set up a futon for myself." Without waiting for my reply, Nee-san stood up, picked up her bag from the couch and walked towards the guest room of my apartment, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Well, I suppose that answers at least some of the questions Miura-san might have had.

Miura was looking to change things in her friend group, and wanted to know more about Hayama and his past so she could change him as well. While my sister hadn't explicitly said it, all the evidence points towards one conclusion: he had confessed to her when he was in middle school, and she had rejected him. Not only that, she had "taught" him about "what kind of world" they lived in, and there are only so many things that can refer to in this context.

It is undeniable that our families are situated in the higher echelons of society due to our wealth, history, and status. Such a life brings with it insight into things normal people may only be vaguely aware of, and while not all are interested in mixing themselves into where money and politics are abundant, they don't always have a choice in the matter. My sister, as the eldest child, is the Yukinoshita heir, and thus had little influence regarding this. Hayama was the same, but it seems that rather than being eased into everything subtly like I was through my parents and older sister, he was thrust into it by Nee-san. While it is perhaps true that she isn't the sole reason behind Hayama-kun's change, as his family would no doubt have taught him everything eventually – and likely did without knowing what Nee-san had already told him – she was definitely the one who set everything into motion.

Could things have turned out differently if Hayama had learned of the intrigue and politicking happening behind the scenes at a later date from his parents, rather than from Nee-san? If he had not changed back when he did…

...How would that have affected me?

There's no reason for me think about this right now. What has happened has happened.

I took a deep breath to clear away my thoughts and lifted my teacup for one last sip. I've found out what I could from Nee-san. Hayama-kun's situation does not concern me in the least, so Miura-san can do whatever she wishes with the information. I also find myself doubting that the shock of rejection alone was enough to make Hayama-kun change, but Miura-san can attempt to learn more from him herself.Noticing Nee-san's empty cup as I placed my own one back down, I let out a small sigh and stood up to collect both her and my cups, then headed towards the kitchen to clean up. I think it would probably be best if I presented my findings in person tomorrow, though, rather than try to spell out everything in a text message. Although, Isshiki-san did inform us that they had decided to meet with Kaihin High School's student council tomorrow, so we might not have much time… Well, I'll just have to inform everyone in the Line group and we can figure something out. Finishing up with the cleaning, I washed my hands and walked back to where I had left my book, pausing for a moment as I looked at where Nee-san had been seated. Moving on to a more pressing matter…

Nee-san's chance meeting with Miura and Hachi today highlighted that I had been too lenient when it came to dealing with Miura. Despite my warnings, it seems that she is insistent on getting between me and Hachi. However, I still have the upper hand, for I know what Miura is planning, but the same does not apply for her – thanks to my sister. I want to trust my Hachi and say that he won't so easily fall for her tricks, but I know the two of them have grown closer than what I could have anticipated. What is the best approach, here..?

I was already planning on one-upping these… rivals at the upcoming Valentine's event, and I know I must take direct action with Isshiki soon enough, but Miura… Perhaps, instead of forcing her to back off, I should take a step forwards myself? So far, I had been passive, waiting for Hachi to realize that we are meant to be, but knowing how dense he can be at times, and with the number of distractions having increased as of late thanks to Miura, it might be a good idea to go on the offensive for a change, to help him realize my feelings, and that we are meant to be together. Hachi and I need each other, which is what Miura-san doesn't understand. She told him she wants to help him, but that is my job. She is selfishly trying to get between us, without fully understanding what she is getting into, and that is why I must stop her. Because Hachi needs me, and…

...I need Hachi.

I felt my chest throb, and brought a hand to my face as I took a deep breath, numerous memories assaulting my mind. After a few moments, I felt myself calming down, and released the breath I was holding. ...That is the base reason for all that I am doing, my love for Hachi. The world has hurt both of us, and only together we can overcome everything. Up until now, I had been quietly watching Hachi as he was in pain, gently trying to help him from the side until he would finally realize we were meant for each other so I could heal his scars fully – and so he could then help heal mine. But now that Miura has entered the scene, I need to take action. If Miura's intentions are to help Hachi… Then I must simply do so first.

I'm sorry, my dear Hachi. I should have done this sooner, but don't worry.

Soon, I will help you. So in turn, please… help me as well.

I didn't think it possible. Logic and reason dictate it shouldn't be. That was the conclusion I came to after spending the entirety of yesterday evening pondering on my current predicament. Analysing, theorizing, and even researching, it all lead to the simple answer that it simply shouldn't be possible – human emotions didn't work like that. These specific kinds of feelings towards another person were not additive, they only ever superseded one another as the object of one's affections changed over time. Thus, it was ridiculous that I had even thought of the possibility.

And yet, here we are.

I was so confident with my conclusion when I came to school today, so sure that what I had felt the previous day was nothing more than fleeting, momentarily thing, and that my deeper-rooted feelings on the matter originated from somewhere completely different than their nature suggested. But, like any good theory, I needed to test it, either to prove or disprove it – and I genuinely believed it would be the former. But when the time to finally prove my theory and set my heart at ease – after school club time – came, I instead found said theory to shatter almost immediately.

I suppose emotions truly are the most irrational thing about us, because even when logically it shouldn't be possible, the frantic beating of my heart cannot lie. Somehow, I, Hikigaya Hachiman…

...Have fallen in love with two separate girls.

I still don't quite believe that it's possible, but I'm forced to accept the reality that I'm faced with.

The moment I opened the clubroom door and saw the beautiful and elegant sight that was Yukinoshita Yukino, I was assaulted by feelings I had gotten all too accustomed to recently, reaffirming that my romantic feelings towards her were still very much present. At first, I was relieved, but when a wave of similar feelings washed over me upon Miura's arrival to the clubroom… things started to break down. Even after musing over everything, taking time to analyse my feelings towards and current… relationship with Miura, and sleeping over everything, I still felt the exact same when I saw her then as I had felt the day before when we had met in the park. In one way I had been right in my musings – having both Miura and Yukinoshita in the same room did indeed help me compare the things I felt towards them.

I just didn't expect that I'd come to the conclusion that I felt the exact same way about both of them.

I had fallen in love with Yukinoshita Yukino after spending time with her, and seeing sides to her that she hadn't shown anyone else. She had relied on me, put her trust into me, and I felt like I needed to stay with her and protect her, to not betray that trust. Her rare, genuine smiles cause my heart to flutter in ways that make me think I have arrhythmia, her close proximity makes my body heat up uncontrollably, and – not to sound like too much of a creep – her pleasant, girly scent makes me tingle.

And, it seems that since our meeting yesterday, all of the above also applies to Miura. The entire time that she spent in the clubroom with Ebina, I didn't know where to look. With both Yukinoshita and Miura sitting less than a metre away from me, my head was spinning and it took everything I had to keep my composure. I had tried my best to come up with different reasons, but I couldn't escape the truth that stared me right in the face: I had fallen in love with Miura, while my feelings for Yukinoshita remained the same. Just like Yukinoshita, she mad managed to reach out and touch my walled-off heart, and her words to me yesterday had caused her hand to grasp onto it firmly. With both her and Yukinoshita gripping onto my heart with seemingly no intentions of letting go, I suddenly find that this… has turned into a very difficult situation.

I had come to accept that despite how unbelievable it seemed, my feelings for both of the girls were very much real. Now I just needed to figure out what to do with them. I was already struggling enough with my feelings towards Yukinoshita, so now suddenly adding Miura into the mix is only going to make things more difficult…

"...Hikki? What's wrong?" A sudden voice interrupted my internal monologue, and I snapped out of my thoughts to look towards its source, seeing the inquisitive and worried eyes of Yuigahama Yui staring back at me. Suddenly, I remembered where I was and what I was doing, and shook my head to clear away my thoughts. Right, the meeting with Kaihin…

While I had spent most of the time during our club meeting desperately trying to find a way out of the illogical situation I had found myself in due to the revelation about my feelings, there had been a proper reason as to why Miura and Ebina had come to us today. Due to my own brain going a mile a minute trying to make sense of why my heart was doing the same, I had not been able to pay full attention to what the others had discussed, though I did take part in the conversation every now and then, so I had a general image of everything that had transpired during the club meeting.

Yukinoshita had first shared to us the information she had obtained from Haruno – or rather, what she had been able to piece together based on the things her sister had said. I was surprised to hear that Yukinoshita had managed to get her sister to talk, but was even more surprised at what she told us – and I wasn't the only one, if the shocked faces of the others were any indication. The new information shed some light on Hayama's situation, and allowed us to plan the next steps for Miura in regards to her clique.

Ebina and Miura had decided that over the coming weekend, they'd set up a meeting between themselves, Tobe, Ooka and Yamato, in order to convince the latter two to join in on their scheme to loosen Hayama's grip on their clique and have everyone in it open up. Miura also – somewhat shyly – added that she believed it to be a good chance for them all to "start from zero again", alluding to her wanting everyone to open up to each other, and invited Yuigahama along, who, after a moment of consideration, accepted. That moment was one of the few things I remembered from our meeting earlier today clearly, as it stuck out to me – and not because I was entranced by Miura acting shyly, I swear! So far, Miura and her friends had only talked about truly opening up, and had made little actual progress, but now they all seemed to be willing to take that step forwards. I could still sense some awkwardness in their interactions – likely resulting from the dynamic between them having changed over the past week or so – but seeing that they were making progress had brought a smile to my face.

After a brief discussion about our plans regarding Miura's request going forward (especially considering if either Ooka or Yamato didn't want to go along with her plans – though at that point my own internal panicking about my feelings drowned out most of the conversation), we had to call the club meeting short due to the request we had gotten from Isshiki. The student council had managed to set up a meeting with Kaihin High School today regarding the joint Valentine's Day event they had planned, and she had asked the Service Club to attend as well. So, after bidding goodbye to Miura and Ebina and wishing them good luck, the three of us ended club activities for the day, returning the clubroom key to Miss Hiratsuka and explaining things to her before we began to make our way to the community centre, like we had done last year for the christmas event.

And that is how we get to this moment, with me walking my bike down the streets of Chiba with Yuigahama and Yukinoshita walking beside me – the former of whom is still looking at me with a concerned expression as she waited for me to answer her query.

"...Ah, sorry, it's nothing. Just absorbed in my thoughts." I replied, realizing that I had been quiet for a moment as I had gone over what I remembered from our club meeting in my head. I should really focus on this upcoming meeting with Kaihin. I have the whole weekend ahead of me to figure out what to do with my feelings for Miura and Yukinoshita.

"Hikigaya-kun…" Yukinoshita's quiet voice came from my left, and I stopped to look at her, seeing that the girls had also stopped – the looks of concern on their face telling me everything I needed. Right, I did promise Yukinoshita that I'd be more open about my worries… This is something I can't tell them about, though, but…

"Sorry, Yukinoshita. Miura's request has gained a bunch of new layers thanks to the info you got from your sister, so I was thinking about it on the way." I said and rubbed the back of my neck, my answer seemingly satisfying the girls as they relaxed and resumed walking again. It's not a lie, as I do find myself concerned about Miura's request as well. "Did I… miss something either of you said..?"

"You were being quieter than usual, but no, you didn't miss anything important. We were just making small talk here and there." Yukinoshita replied to me and adjusted her scarf as she gazed upwards. It wasn't too late, but clouds obscured the sky, leaving our surroundings only dimly lit. "I suppose that is just like you, though, to worry about a request so much you zone out of everything else." She then continued after a pause, her eyes moving to me as a small smile graced her lips, and I had to avert my own eyes as I felt a slight heat rising to cheeks despite the cold air.

"Yeah, that's what Hikki's like!" Yuigahama added as she playfully nudged me with her arm. "I was a little worried, since you seemed to be a bit out of it during club time as well. I thought that maybe something had happened." I-it was that obvious..? I thought I kept my composure pretty well, but I suppose my mind was a jumbled mess throughout it…

"I-it's nothing like that, Yuigahama. I was just preoccupied with my own thoughts on it all. Sorry I didn't contribute as much as I probably should have." I replied and scratched my cheek. I think they did well, though, even if all I could do was occasionally offer my thoughts on the matter.

"Well, Miura-san and Ebina-san seemed to have made a decent plan, so now we just have to wait for its results. It's not like we had a massive amount of time to discuss everything anyway, due to Isshiki-san's request as well." Yukinoshita pondered out loud, likely seeking to reassure me with her words. "Miura-san did seem quite conflicted about everything I had to say, though. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do with Hayama-kun just yet." That's understandable. I think it's good that she's focusing on the others first and leaving Hayama for last – it'll be a good bargaining chip for her. Still, I find myself doubting that he'd be willing to change his ways for them.

"I think Yumiko sympathizes with him." Yuigahama chimed in, tightening her hold on the straps of her bag as she gazed downwards. "I know you had history with him, Yukinon, but I wouldn't have guessed something like that would have happened between your sister and Hayato…"

"It's only an educated guess of mine, since Nee-san never actually said it out loud, but it is highly plausible. There are too many factors that point towards that being the case, and I don't believe their presence is mere coincidence." Factors, that only Yukinoshita, her sister, and Hayama are aware of, I'm sure. I knew Yukinoshita's past was full of things she wasn't particularly keen on telling others, but that there were those who had the knowledge – Hayama among them. Maybe grilling Hayama about his own past will tell me more about Yukinoshita as well.

If he's willing to speak at all, that is.

I covertly glanced towards Yukinoshita, letting my gaze linger on her for a few moments before I quickly averted it again lest one of the girls noticed it. I didn't yet know how I should approach the issue of my feelings towards Yukinoshita and Miura, but one thing was definitely certain: No matter what, I wouldn't leave Yukinoshita on her own. She might not open up about her past the same way Miura did, but I nonetheless want to help her. And the same applies for Miura as well.

I think by calling this simply "difficult" might be underselling the unbelievable situation I am in.

It didn't take long for us to arrive at the community centre, which told me that I had been on "autopilot" while monologuing for most of the trip. The girls had stayed mostly quite for the rest of the walk, with Yuigahama occasionally starting up conversation, and having pushed my worries aside for now, I was able to join in as well. The two of them waited as I left my bike at the bike rack outside, and we headed inside, walking through the familiar corridors towards the conference room that had been reserved for the meeting.

"...Iroha-chan says that everyone else is pretty much there already, but they're just getting ready and haven't begun the meeting yet." Yuigahama said and looked up from her phone as we made our way through the community centre. "Looks like we made it here early." Quickly checking the time, it seemed Yuigahama was correct – there was still about eight minutes left before the scheduled start for the meeting.

"Let's not keep them waiting, then. I dread to think what this meeting might become without someone competent at the helm." Yukinoshita said and sighed in exasperation, no doubt recalling what the christmas event had been like before she and Yuigahama had stepped in to help put things back on track.

"I-it should be fine this time! Iroha-chan said so, right? I'm sure things will go just fine!" Yuigahama tried to reassure Yukinoshita, but she didn't seem to be buying it. I can't fault your optimism, Yuigahama, but if Tamanawa hasn't… Suddenly, I felt myself stopping, remembering when I had gone out to eat with Miura last week, and the events that had transpired. Tamanawa and Orimoto...If she is here as well…

This is going to be very awkward.

"...Hikki?" Yuigahama's voice made me snap back, and I saw the girls had stopped a couple of metres away from me, looking back at me with confused expressions.

"Ah, sorry, coming. Aren't we almost there yet?" I asked and glanced around, seeing a few doors up ahead with number plates next to them.

"...Yes, we are. It should be this one here." Yukinoshita replied, her gaze lingering on me for a few moments before she walked up to one of the doors, with myself and Yuigahama following behind. I can hear just the tiniest bits of muffled conversation from within, but looking at the time, they shouldn't have started yet. "They're probably waiting for us, so let's not waste any more time." The two of us nodded to Yukinoshita, and she opened the door to the conference room.

The muffled conversation I had heard through the door initially became more prominent, before quickly quieting down as just about every pair of eyes within the room turned to us as we entered. The people I recognized as being from Kaihin looked at us in surprise, while the student council of our school offered us nods of acknowledgement. As Isshiki noticed us, she quickly made her way to the door, leaving behind a wide-eyed Tamanawa, who was clearly shocked at seeing the three of us. And as I moved my gaze just off to the side, I met the brown eyes of Orimoto Kaori, looking right at me in surprise. ...So she is here. Let's just hope I don't have to interact with her.

"Ah! You're here! Good to see you three made it on time." Isshiki greeted us with a warm smile, then leaned slightly closer and continued in a lower tone. "I was running out of ways to prevent Tamanawa from starting the meeting early." She said to us with a wink, then turned back to Tamanawa. So… she didn't tell Kaihin that we'd be included…? I looked towards the rest of the student council with a raised eyebrow, and the vice-president shook his head at me gently and sighed. I see… Sly as ever… "Now that everyone is here, we can start the meeting, right?" Upon hearing Isshiki's question, Tamanawa blinked once, then looked between Isshiki and us three, before clearing his throat.

"Right, um, yes, of course. Please, uh, take a seat, Service Club of Soubu High." Tamanawa said to us with a smile and gestured towards the empty seats next to Soubu's student council. "We were just about to begin the meeting about the joint Valentine's Day event your student council president proposed, and we are… glad to have you join us." Tamanawa's smile was slightly strained, and his gaze kept flicking to me. If he keeps looking at me, this is only going to become more and more awkward.

"Thank you. Isshiki-san specifically reached out to the club to help set up this event, so it is our pleasure to be here." Yukinoshita replied to him politely, then sent him a sidelong glance as she moved to take a seat. "Let us hope that this collaboration proceeds more smoothly than last time." Yukinoshita's tone of voice was neutral, but she didn't attempt to conceal the sharp edge of her words, and I saw Tamanawa flinching slightly as he continued awkwardly smiling. I've grown used to her verbal jabs, but to someone soft like Tamanawa, they must feel like stabs in the gut…

"You... need not worry, Yukinoshita-san. The previous collaboration event worked as a learning experience for all of us involved. We should not dwell on past mistakes, but learn from them instead. And the event was a success in the end, was it not? I'm certain that it will pave the way for a long-lasting relationship between our schools, which our presence here today is proof of." Tamanawa reassured Yukinoshita, and while he tried to keep up appearances, I could tell he was still slightly tense. He's still speaking in vague terms… But at least so far it seems he's dropped the needless and difficult-to-understand business jargon.

"Indeed. Let us begin then and see where things go, shall we?" Yukinoshita said as she sat down, first looking at Tamanawa, then at Isshiki, the latter of whom sprang into action.

"Yes! We have much to discuss and decide, and only limited time, since Valentine's Day is just around the corner." Isshiki said with a clap of her hands and looked towards Tamanawa as she continued. "The Soubu Student Council is ready to begin the meeting, so whenever you're ready…" Isshiki flashed Tamanawa a cutesy smile, appealing to him on two fronts – her own natural cuteness, and her position as student council president. For someone who didn't initially like the idea of responsibility that comes with being the student council president, she sure is fitting into the role well… I dread to think what might happen should this sly fox decide to become a politician.

After everyone got settled down, Tamanawa and Isshiki began the meeting. First, Isshiki outlined the proposed structure of the Valentine's Day event she and the rest of the student council had come up with, as well as the role she had planned for the Service Club, and finally what she hoped to gain from collaborating with Kaihin – their help in taking care of the budget. All in all, I was surprised and impressed by Isshiki's capabilities in having thought everything out so thoroughly, and judging by the expression on Yukinoshita's face as Isshiki spoke, she felt the same. Isshiki had grown immensely since she became the student council president, and this event was the culmination of all her growth so far.

Perhaps excited by Isshiki's well thought-out plan, Tamanawa followed up by enthusiastically talking about the opportunities a collaboration like this would give both schools. Just when I was about to question whether or not he himself had changed since the christmas event, another surprise came to us as Tamanawa not only accepted Isshiki's proposals, but also added his own, reasonable suggestions into the mix. Since Isshiki had informed that Kaihin would be in charge of the funding beforehand, Tamanawa had prepared estimations on the cost of the event depending on how large we wanted to make it – and unlike previously, they were well within the budget available to us.

The meeting proceeded along very smoothly, and we were able to make some great headway in regards to the event. The primary objective of the event, and what it would be advertised as, was to offer students a chance to practice their cooking skills on the eve of Valentine's Day. A school-wide event was out of our reach, and we reasoned that relatively few would actually want to (or be able to, due to the limited space and resources) participate, so instead we decided to let people apply on their own if they wished to take part. This meant advertising the event to the student bodies of both schools, and setting up a way for willing participants to apply. Kaihin would utilize their school's digital student network system overseen by the faculty and the student council, while Soubu, lacking such a system, would stick to application sheets where people could write their names placed in specific locations at the school. However, due to the limited time we had before Valentine's Day, Isshiki's initial plans of holding the event at our school had to be changed, but thankfully the answer to the issue lied within the very community centre we were holding the meeting in, as it held facilities specifically for holding cooking classes – both ones set up by the City council or Chiba residents. Hosting one, centralized event in a place like the community centre was also easier to manage than two separate events at our respective schools, so everyone agreed to the change of plans and Tamanawa swiftly moved the meeting towards more precise planning.

Time went by quickly, and soon I found myself sitting down for a break with a can of MAX Coffee. In just less than an hour, we had made more headway in preparing for this event than we had for the christmas event in an entire day. I suppose I should give Tamanawa some credit. He's clearly improved since last time, and like Isshiki, he seems to have some innate talent for being a student council president – he just needed a little push. I sipped on my drink as I silently watched Tamanawa conversing with the students from Kaihin, sending one of them – presumably the vice-president of their Student Council – off to see about reserving the cooking facilities of the community centre for our purposes. My idle observations were interrupted when a can of tea was suddenly placed on the table next to me, and I turned to see Yukinoshita next to me, also looking towards Tamanawa.

"Good work, Hikigaya-kun." Yukinoshita said and sat down, glancing in my direction with a small smile. "Using the community centre for this event was a good suggestion. I didn't even know it had such facilities." I shrugged in reply to Yukinoshita, who opened her can of tea and began to drink from it.

"It's nothing. I'm sure someone else would have suggested the same thing. I'm more surprised they listened to me." I replied and glanced back towards the entrance into the conference room. "Did you leave Yuigahama somewhere?" I then asked, suddenly feeling overly conscious of her closeness, even in a room full of other people.

"She had to visit the restroom." I nodded to Yukinoshita, not pressing the matter any further. "I must say that I am also surprised they listened to you. Not many people do, isn't that correct?" She then said, sending me a sideways glance accompanied by a teasing smile. Oh, I see.

"Well, you're doing so right now, Yukinoshita, and getting you of all people to do that must count for something, right?" I shot back and took a sip of MAX as I awaited for her response… which didn't come. Turning my gaze to Yukinoshita, I saw her gazing off into the distance with a disinterested look as she sipped her own drink, as if ignoring my presence. "...Oi." Yukinoshita met my eyes and raised an eyebrow in question, still pretending as if she couldn't hear me, and I sighed in defeat, finally causing her to giggle lightly. ...If only you weren't so cute...

"My apologies, but you made that far too easy, Hikigaya-kun." Yukinoshita said with an amused look, and I had to avert my gaze from her, deciding to take another sip of MAX instead of responding. I can't say that I don't enjoy our banter, but my feelings for her make this exceedingly more difficult than ever before… And dare I say that realizing I also love Miura has only made those feelings more prominent. The more I think about the situation I am in, the more I question whether there's something wrong with my head. Normal, sane people don't fall in love with multiple people at the same time, right? "...Hm? Isn't that…" Yukinoshita's voice pulled me out of my thoughts, and I turned back to see her blue eyes looking to the other side of the room. Following her gaze, I froze when my eyes met those of Orimoto Kaori, who raised a hand as she slowly made her way over to us. Please don't...

"...Hey, Hikigaya." Orimoto greeted me somewhat awkwardly, then turned her gaze to Yukinoshita. "And you were… Yukinoshita, right?"

"...Yes, that is correct. Yukinoshita Yukino is my name. I recognise you, but I do not believe we have been properly introduced." Yukinoshita replied with a neutral tone, glancing at me briefly.

"Ah, right, sorry. My name's Orimoto Kaori. I'm… a classmate of Hikigaya's from middle school." Orimoto introduced herself to Yukinoshita, and I noticed that she seemed to be actively avoiding looking at me. I knew meeting Orimoto again after last week would be awkward… Why did she seek out this interaction on her own if she's going to act like this? "But, man, we really didn't expect to see you guys here again. Prez didn't tell us anything about you helping us again." I shared a look with Yukinoshita, who seemed to hold back an oncoming sigh.

"It does seem that our student council president left out that we'd be included in this event when she briefed your student council about it. But, no matter. Things have gone favourably so far. Much better than during the last collaboration between our schools, that is for certain." Yukinoshita said and took a sip of her drink, while Orimoto awkwardly smiled at her. On the other side of the room, I could spot Tamanawa observing our conversation as he kept stealing glances at us every few seconds. I'm going to start feeling like I need to leave the room, soon...

"Ahaha, You're not wrong, there…" Orimoto replied and looked to me again, seemingly searching for her words for a few moments before continuing. "I… guess that blonde girl isn't with you today, huh?" To my side, I saw Yukinoshita freezing in place momentarily, before she lowered her can of tea and looked between Orimoto and me.

"Uh, well, yeah. Miura's not part of the Service Club or the student council, so of course not." I replied and rubbed the back of my neck, Yukinoshita's intense gaze making me feel slightly uncomfortable.

"Right, that… makes sense. You two… seemed pretty close, ahahaa…" Orimoto said with an awkward laugh and glanced at Yukinoshita, whose expression was unreadable. "I… Look, Hikigaya… I wanted to say that I'm sorry." Orimoto's apology caught me off-guard, and raised an eyebrow at her in confusion.

"...What for?" I asked, and Orimoto bit her lip, before letting out a small sigh. I can't ever remember seeing her like this… Except maybe last week right before Miura dragged me out of the restaurant.

"For… everything, I suppose. Miura-san was right. I didn't realize that the things I said could be hurtful, since you didn't openly react to them. So… I'm sorry." Orimoto offered me a small bow, and I could now see that we had drawn the attention of many others in the room as well, hushed whispers from the Kaihin students reaching my ears. Orimoto…

"...You don't have to go that far, Orimoto." I said, and the brown-haired girl raised her head again. "We agreed that what's in the past stays there, right? It… doesn't bother as much as Miura thinks it does." It might have affected me back then, but thanks to those experiences, I've hardened into the person I am today. I now understand why Miura reacted so strongly back then, and I don't condemn her for it, but… What's in the past is in the past. It won't affect me if I don't let it do so. "So, yeah, you don't have to worry. But, thanks, I guess." Orimoto stayed silent for a few moments, then – to my surprise – smiled.

"I now understand what Miura-san meant. She knows you well, Hikigaya." Miura? Knows me well? We've only properly known each other for less than two weeks… I know she cares about me, but… I think it's a bit far to say she knows me well… "I suppose that is the best response I could get from you for my apology. Still, I'll be more mindful of you in the future, Hikigaya. You've become a really interesting person since our middle school days, and I do truly hope we could still be friends." Orimoto smiled at me warmly, and I sensed nothing but the truth in her words. Being friends with Orimoto, huh..? I find myself doubting whether we'll ever be able to be that close, but… I suppose if this means she'll truly bury everything away, it's only going to be a positive thing.

"...Do what you want, I suppose." I replied in a neutral tone, hoping to come off as indifferent rather than rude, and Orimoto let out a small chuckle.

"I suppose I will." She said with a smile. "Phew, that felt good to get off my chest. Now, I won't keep you two any longer. Let's do our best again once the break is over!" Orimoto looked between Yukinoshita and I, then began to make her out of the conference room, glancing back at us briefly with a smile before exiting out of the door.

"...What was that about?" A few moments of silence passed before Yukinoshita spoke out, looking at me with a raised eyebrow. Right, like she said, they've never been properly introduced…

"Ah, well… Orimoto is a former classmate, like she said. We… have some history, you could say, and I suppose that was her way of… reconciling. We've already agreed to leave the past behind us since 'reuniting' last year, but there were still some things leftover… I guess." I left my explanation vague, not really feeling like telling Yukinoshita that Orimoto was on the receiving end of my first confession, not to even mention that other people around might hear me.

"I see. How did she know Miura-san, though? It seemed like she was the reason behind this apology." Yukinoshita then asked from me. I… suppose I should just tell her the truth.

"I met Orimoto by chance last week, and Miura was with me back then." Yukinoshita narrowed her eyes slightly, but didn't stop me from continuing. "Orimoto being… well, herself, she wanted to 'hang out' with me, despite my protests. She… ended up bringing up some things from our middle school days that I would rather not have remembered, and while it didn't bother me that much… Miura felt different. She said some… rather sharp words to Orimoto before, uh… dragging me off. That's the long and short of it, really." I explained shortly and took a sip of my drink, seeing Yukinoshita lowering her gaze down to her own drink as I finished. "I guess Miura's words must have her realize something and caused her to feel the need to apologize to me."

"...That would explain her awkwardness when talking to you, and the awkward glances she kept sending your way. If I recall correctly, Hayama-kun defended you in front that girl last year as well, did he not?" Yukinoshita asked as she turned to me, and I nodded to her in return. Yes, he did… Coming from Miura, though… it felt different."One could then hope that her words are a sign of growth. If she thoughtlessly hurts you again…" Yukinoshita trailed off, and I looked to her, unsure if I heard her correctly, and momentarily froze as I saw her brows furrowing in anger – for my sake. Yukinoshita… "Ahem. My apologies." I blinked and quickly averted my gaze as Yukinoshita cleared her throat and looked back at me. Keep still, my beating heart… I wouldn't have imagined that one day someone could make me feel like this by doing something I would usually scoff at..."So, what do you think? That girl wanted to be friends with you, Hikigaya-kun. I don't know what kind of 'history' you two have, but…" Hearing her words, I cleared my thoughts and looked back at Yukinoshita, keeping my gaze locked with hers for a few moments, then looking down at my can of MAX in thought.

"...I don't really know. I tried to distance myself from Orimoto before, but…" ...Maybe it could be a way of moving away from the past. I like to think I've already done that, but… I saw my fingers tightening around the can and shook my head to clear my thoughts. "...I guess I'm kinda indifferent to it. We've agreed to let the past die, but I'm not sure about us moving any closer together – the distance we have now is comfortable. But, Orimoto is definitely different from what I used to think of her back then, and even recently, if she really wants to be friends with me. More… open, I guess. In the end… I don't really know." I scratched my head and looked to Yukinoshita again, seeing her watching me intently.

"It's slightly amusing seeing you think so much about something like this." Yukinoshita said and smiled slightly as she brought a hand up to her lips, while I sighed in return. I suppose this is quite uncharacteristic of me… Miura letting herself into my social circle has made me think more about the relationships I have with people.

"...I don't fault you for that. I don't think I'll be able to call Orimoto a friend any time soon, if ever, but I suppose if this will… reset our relationship back to neutral, it can only be a good thing." I lifted my can of MAX up to my lips for a sip, and silence fell between Yukinoshita and I. When I glanced back at her, I saw her looking down at the can of tea in her hands with a contemplative expression on her face. I don't think I said anything that deep, did I..? When Yukinoshita noticed my gaze, she looked back up and opened her mouth hesitantly, but was interrupted before she could speak by the door to the room opening, and two familiar figures entering.

"Senpai! Good work so far." Isshiki's energetic voice rang out in my ears, and I even saw Yukinoshita flinching at the sudden sound. I feel you, Yukinoshita. Isshiki has no consideration for us loners and our sensitive ears.

"Ah, sure, thanks. Good work." I said as Isshiki all but ran over to me, casually placing a hand on my shoulder, while Yuigahama followed behind. Momentarily, I saw what I thought was a glare on Yukinoshita's face as she looked at Isshiki, but it was swiftly gone as she sighed and rubbed her temple.

"Hehee, things are going great, aren't they? I told you this would work out." Isshiki said and proudly puffed out her chest, as if expecting praise. Something about the scene – perhaps because Isshiki was now the complete opposite to back then – reminded me about what happened with Isshiki last Friday. I'm still not quite sure what caused Isshiki to act like that, but at least she seems to have gotten over it… A part of me is a little worried about the fact that she suspected that I had feelings towards Yukinoshita, but she hasn't brought it up since then. "Wouldn't you say that I've become better at being the student council president, Senpai?" Isshiki leaned close to me – too close – and looked me directly in the eyes, not giving me any way to escape her question.

"Uh, yeah, I guess. Though, Tamanawa maturing since the christmas event has just as much to do with today's success." I replied and turned away, trying to put as much distance between myself and Isshiki as possible. What's with the sudden closeness..?

"Senpai, that's not how you're supposed to praise a girl." Isshiki scolded me, and I turned back to see an unamused expression on her face. "Do I need to teach everything to you? You need to tell me how well I'm doing despite just being a first-year, and how much I've grown and so forth! No girl is ever going to give you Valentine's chocolate if you stay like this, Senpai." I glanced briefly at Yukinoshita and Yuigahama, the latter of whom was awkwardly playing with her hair bun.

"Someone who begs for praise is the least deserving of it. Besides, I'm always bound to get some chocolate from Komachi, so I do believe that your statement is incorrect, Isshiki." The girl in front of me pouted, then let out a sigh. "Besides, if you want praise, ask Hayama for it. That's one of the reasons why you wanted to set up this event in the first place, right? To get all chummy with Hayama? You did say that you weren't giving up yet." Hearing my words, Isshiki seemed to freeze for a moment, and I saw Yukinoshita glancing towards her as well.

"...Yes, I did say that." Isshiki said quietly, her gaze moving to Yukinoshita, who had now already shifted her attention back to her drink. What's with this back-and-forth glancing..? And is this atmosphere suddenly kinda tense..? "...And I intend to stick by that statement." Isshiki suddenly leaned close to me again as she spoke, and I instinctively moved back. Seriously, why so close? It's making me uncomfortable.

"Isshiki-san, I believe Tamanawa-san might be asking for you." Yukinoshita spoke out, and Isshiki pulled back, looking towards Kaihin's student council president, whose gaze was directed at us.

"Alright, coming~!" Isshiki dashed off towards Tamanawa, offering one last glance at me before she stopped next to him and began to speak. I turned my gaze to Yukinoshita, who was finishing off her drink and met my gaze with her own.

"Iroha-chan is really into this, huh?" Yuigahama said as she sat down next to us, her gaze directed at Isshiki.

"You aren't wrong, but like Hikigaya-kun insinuated… I find myself questioning whether all of her motives are of the unselfish variety." Yukinoshita replied to her while setting down her now-empty can of tea. Did she… grip the can too hard or something? It looks like there's a dent on it… Or maybe it just came out of the vending machine like that.

"We can at least hope that the rest of the meeting goes as well as the first half did." I added, lifting my can of MAX to my lips.

"Indeed." Yukinoshita glanced back briefly as a number of figures entered the room, among them both Orimoto and the vice-president that Tamanawa had sent off earlier. Looks like break time will be over soon.

Readying myself for the rest of the meeting, I down the rest of my MAX in one go, then set the empty can on the table.


Simply intolerable.

I'll admit, she is awfully brave, doing that in front of me, but bravery – even if she is ignorant of what she's doing – does not make it acceptable.

I've known that she was a problem for a long time now, but it seems as if she has gotten bolder recently. Too bold.

She's clearly overstepped her bounds, and I must stop her before she takes things too far. I know that I've been sitting on the sideline until now, hoping and believing that things would end up exactly as they should, but no more.

I must take action, and that involves putting that sly little vixen back into her place.

"Isshiki-san, there was something I wanted to speak to you about. Privately, if possible."

The younger girl lifted an eyebrow at me as she straightened a stack of papers in her hands. The meeting had just concluded successfully, with the main details about the event (which was to be held on Monday, right before Valentine's Day) decided, and everyone was getting ready to leave. However, Tamanawa and Isshiki – as the student council presidents of Kaihin and Soubu, respectively – would have to stay behind for a little longer after everyone else. The perfect moment.

"Hm? Alright, what's this about?" Isshiki questioned from me.

"Ah, like I said, I'd like to discuss it privately. You'll need some extra time here, right? I'll be waiting for you outside of the community centre." I replied to her. I will have to hope that words will be enough to dissuade her… I wouldn't want to resort to anything more than that in a public place.

"Hmmm… Okaaaayyy. It better not take too long." Isshiki said with a slight grumble, then returned her attention back to the stack of papers. Oh, that is entirely dependent on you, Isshiki-san. Leaving Isshiki to her work, I returned to where Hachi and Yuigahama were packing up. Now, I must make sure Yuigahama-san doesn't ruin my plans, while also making sure neither she or Hachi finds out about them.

"You ready to go, Yukinon?" Yuigahama asked as I picked up my things.

"Yes, I am. Isshiki-san needs to stay behind with Tamanawa-san, so I believe we should let them handle things from here and take our leave." I replied, and Hachi glanced in Isshiki's direction, before nodding to me, with Yuigahama following after him.

"Iroha-chan! We'll see you next week!" Yuigahama called out to Isshiki, who turned to us and waved in goodbye, but quickly turned away as Tamanawa spoke to her. "Let's get going, then!"

Without further ado, the three of us left the conference room and made our way through the community centre. With the exception of Yuigahama's idle humming we kept quiet the whole way, the silence only breaking once we were all outside. It had gotten considerably darker compared to before the meeting, but the automated street lights and the light coming from surrounding buildings made it easy enough to see.

"It's pretty cold out here!" Yuigahama commented as she walked a few steps forwards ahead of Hachi and I.

"You only feel that way because we've just spent time indoors. It's only a few degrees below zero." I replied to her, bringing out my phone to check the time. "But I suppose a warm meal wouldn't be bad. Your mother will be making dinner, won't she?" I then asked from the girl. If I am to stay here with Isshiki… I need to try and make it so Yuigahama and Hachi aren't left alone. Yuigahama will likely take the train home, while Hachi will have to go by foot due to his bike, but I can't take any chances.

"Oh, right, today is Friday! I wonder what she's going to make… Wait, what time is it?" Yuigahama scrambled to find her own phone, and I took my chance.

"You'll have to hurry if you want to catch the next train, right? I'm sure your mother would get worried if you stayed out too late in the cold." Yuigahama looked at me, then her phone, a conflicted expression appearing on her face.

"Agh, that's right… Hey, Yukinon, do you want to come with me? I'm sure my mum would love to have you over for dinner!" Yuigahama asked from me with a smile, moving to take a hold of my hand. ...I know Yuigahama is smarter than she lets on, and while I'm sure that for the most part, her request is genuine… I glanced at Hachi, who was quietly looking at the two of us. ...I can't help but feel she's trying to do the exact same thing as I am.

"...Thank you for the offer, Yuigahama-san, but I don't think I'll be able to come. Nee-san has holed up in my apartment for the weekend, so… As much as I wouldn't want to, I'll be heading straight back after I do some shopping. If only to make sure she doesn't trash the place while I'm not around." I replied to the girl with a sigh, then smiled at her. "I'm sure your mother's food is delicious, though. That's more reason for you to go back to her – I know I'm getting quite peckish after that meeting."

"I'm sure Haruno-san wouldn't do anything like that, ahahaa… But, you're right, Yukinon. I don't want to make my mum worry, and I'm pretty hungry too. But next time for sure you'll come and have dinner!" I nodded to Yuigahama with a smile, and she shifted her gaze to Hachi. "And you're welcome too, Hikki!"

"...I'll pass for now, but I'll consider the offer." Hachi said and averted his gaze. I would very much prefer for that to not happen, unless I can also be present…

"It's settled then!" Yuigahama pumped a fist in the air, and I looked to Hachi, who met my gaze with his own and smiled ruefully. "I'll get going, then. I'll see you later, Hikki, Yukinon!"

"Yeah, see you."

"Goodbye, Yuigahama-san."

We exchanged goodbyes with the girl, then watched as she dashed off, leaving me alone with Hachi in front of the community centre. Right, that's that dealt with.

"...Want me to walk you home?" Hachi suddenly spoke out, and I turned to him, surprised, only to see his gaze averted as he awkwardly scratched a cheek. "I mean… It's kinda late, so I figured…" I stood still, stunned for a few moments, before looking away from Hachi and smiling to myself. Oh, Hachi… You can be such a gentleman sometimes… Under any other circumstances, I would jump at this opportunity, unfortunately, I have to deal with Isshiki-san.

"I appreciate the offer, Hikigaya-kun, but I am perfectly fine of taking care of myself." I replied after calming my feelings. "But, I would be inclined to accept it, if it wasn't for the same reason I declined Yuigahama-san's offer. I would like to believe you aren't brave enough to try anything indecent while escorting me home, but what do you think Nee-san would think if she happened to see us?" I offered a teasing smile to Hachi, who met my eyes briefly, and thought I could see the faintest hint of a blush on his face.

"Right… sorry." Hachi apologized to me, looking away from me again.

"You don't need to apologize. Like I said, I do truly appreciate the offer. It was... very thoughtful of you, Hikigaya-kun." Suddenly, I was feeling embarrassed myself, and Miss Hiratsuka's words to me about being honest with Hachi returned to the forefront of my mind.

"...Thanks." Hachi said quietly after several seconds of silence had passed between us. "I… guess I'll get going, then."

"Yes… You have Komachi-chan waiting for you at home, do you not? I'm sure she'll be starting to get worried soon." I said to Hachi with a smile, having regained my composure, and he smiled back at me.

"Yeah. See you around, Yukinoshita."

"See you, Hikigaya-kun."

I watched for a few moments as Hachi made his way to the bike racks, before I started to make my way away from the community centre as well. Right, I suppose I should make this believable by going to the nearby store while I wait for Isshiki-san to finish up. Lying to Hachi is… not something that brings me joy, but it is necessary right now. This way, if something ends up happening between Isshiki-san and I, and she tells Hachi… it'll be my word against hers.

And I'm sure Hachi will believe me over her.

I made my way to the nearby convenience store and bought some things to fill up the fridge, knowing that my sister would undoubtedly empty it over the course of her visit. Afterwards, I returned to the community centre to wait for Isshiki, only to find the girl herself waiting for me just outside it. As I got closer, I saw her looking at her phone with a slightly annoyed expression, which only seemed to intensify when she lifted her gaze and saw me approaching.

"Where did you disappear off to? I was about to call you." Isshiki asked and crossed her arms. For now, I must remain civil.

"My apologies, I decided that I'd get my shopping done while I waited for you. I thought you'd take longer than that." I apologized to Isshiki, which seemed to calm her.

"I suppose that's fair. I only really needed to stay so we could finalize some of the documentation and so I could get copies of it. We already decided on everything important, so we'll just be communicating over the weekend to actually set it up for Monday." Isshiki said with a shrug. "So, what was it you wanted to talk about, Yukino-senpai?" She then asked from me. Here we go.

"We can talk while we make our way to the station." Isshiki nodded to me, and we began to slowly make our way towards the train station. "What I wanted to speak about was… a more personal matter, you could say." I saw Isshiki raising an eyebrow at me in curiosity, urging me to continue with her expression. "Tell me, Isshiki-san… You're pursuing Hayama-kun romantically, are you not?" On my side, I saw Isshiki flinch slightly, but she kept walking.

"Ehhh? What makes you think that?" Isshiki asked in turn with her over-

the-top cutesy voice. I'm sure this is all just an act, a front she puts up… which doesn't make her any better than Nee-san. I suppose in a way Isshiki-san is more or less like a more juvenile version of my sister…

"You make it quite obvious, Isshiki-san. No point in attempting to hide it." I replied, seeing Isshiki eye me for a moment.

"I didn't think you were the type of girl to talk about this kinda stuff, Yukino-senpai." Isshiki's voice was now serious again as she kept her gaze directed forwards. "What gives? Wait, are you interested in him too? I've heard you two have some history together…" I felt my hand balling up to a fist at the mere indication behind Isshiki's words, but calmed myself down before responding.

"Nothing like that, I assure you. And I wouldn't trust rumours if I were you, Isshiki-san. Hayama-kun and I simply went to the same middle school, and our families know each other, that is all." You are the last person who I want to open up to about that time. "It is only because of certain circumstances that I am asking you about this." Isshiki turned her head to look at me with a puzzled expression, and I turned my own head to meet her gaze. "I wanted to ask if it was true, since while you certainly act that way… you seem to be instead be awfully clingy with a certain other person – Hikigaya-kun." As soon as I mentioned his name, Isshiki froze in place, her feet stopping, and I slowed to a halt a couple steps ahead to turn and face her. For someone as sly as her, who is seemingly already used to manipulating others with the way she acts, Isshiki-san is terribly easy to read sometimes – this reaction tells me more than enough already. "Isshiki-san?" My voice pulled our out of her stupor, and Isshiki continued walking past me.

"W-what do you mean by that? Wait, are you perhaps insinuating that I have some interest in Senpai? Don't make me laugh. I mean, I suppose he isn't bad-looking, but his eyes are totally creepy, and he's just so… weird. Not relationship material at all. You get what I'm saying, right, Yukino-senpai?" Isshiki stopped again and turned around to look at me.

"Isshiki-san… You resemble my sister in many ways, but you still have a long ways to go to become a liar at the same level as she is." Isshiki's expression turned into one of confusion again, and I took a single step towards her. "The truth is, you have no interest in Hayama at all – at least not any more. Perhaps you once did, which allows you to keep up the act so well, but those feelings are no longer there. Am I correct?" Isshiki looked back at me, completely stunned, before she blinked and spoke again.

"W-what are you talking about, Yukino-senpai? I-I mean… if you really want me to say it… I do… like Hayama-senpai…" Isshiki fidgeted in place, and while it would have been convincing otherwise, her facade was already starting to crumble.

"You mean you liked Hayama-kun. I do not blame you, since his faking has attracted the attention of many girls in our school. But, I am correct when I say that you no longer hold any romantic feelings for him, aren't I?" I took another step towards Isshiki, but it didn't look like she could rebuke me. "That is also understandable. Once you learn what Hayama-kun is truly like, I don't think many would continue to like him. But for you, someone else caught your eye instead, someone more… interesting than the 'perfect' Hayama-kun." Another step towards the younger girl, and I was now in front of her, our slight difference in height causing me to look down on her, only accentuated by her seemingly shrinking away. "And yet, you still act as if you are pursuing Hayama-kun, all in order to hide the fact that you actually aren't interested in him any more, and have shifted your attention to someone else. To Hikigaya-kun. Isn't that correct?" I looked Isshiki directly in the eyes, which were wide open in surprise. I pretty much know the answer already, but… I would like to hear the confirmation from her mouth.

"What… How…" Isshiki mumbled, not quite able to formulate a proper sentence, before she laughed awkwardly "That's… preposterous! Hilarious! Unthinkable! Why would… I take that kind of i-interest in Senpai…" I kept my gaze on Isshiki, and she trailed off, likely realizing that there was no escape for her.

"It is alright, Isshiki-san, I do not blame you." I said, then took my eyes off Isshiki to glance around. There aren't many people around, but we are close to the shopping centre… "Hikigaya-kun is quite a wonderful person, so it is no wonder that he has attracted the attention of people belonging to the opposite sex. However…" I had let my gaze wander as I spoke, but I quickly snapped it back to Isshiki, causing her to flinch, and then spoke to her in a cold tone. "...That does not give you the right to look at him in that way, or to cling to him so." Isshiki's eyes widened slightly, and she leaned back away from me.

"….W-what?" The girl's voice was quiet, almost a whisper, as she was clearly in disbelief at what she was hearing.

"You heard me, Isshiki-san. I cannot blame you for your feelings, but you have no right to pursue Hikigaya-kun – my Hikigaya-kun – due to them." I moved closer to Isshiki, placing a hand on her shoulder to prevent her from moving any further. "Because in doing so, you are stepping onto what is my territory. I have allowed you to stay close so far, but you have tried my patience for long enough, so I must stop you." I heard Isshiki inhaling sharply, and her eyes widened even further.

"You… you like… Senpai..?" Isshiki asked from me, and I let go of her shoulder, hearing her exhale as she swiftly placed a hand on top of the spot I had been gripping onto.

"The word 'like' is simply not enough to describe it, Isshiki-san. And that is what makes us different. You may 'like' Hikigaya-kun, but the connection, the feeling between myself and him… it is far more complex than that. We are meant for each other, to stand together against the cruelty of the world, to heal each other's scars, to love each other until the end of days. Hachi is the only one for me, and I am the only for him." I brought a hand to my chest while closing my eyes, feeling my heart beating rapidly as I professed my love for Hachi to Isshiki. "...And that is exactly why I must take action now." I opened my eyes again and coldly glared at Isshiki. "You are an obstacle, Isshiki-san. Hachi and I are meant to be, but your feeble attempts at getting closer to him, pursuing your insubstantial feelings might make him confused and delay the inevitable that is us finally being together. That is something I cannot allow to happen. So, Isshiki-san, I will only say this once." I pointed a finger at Isshiki, then swiftly grabbed her by the collar as I leaned close enough to see fear welling up in her eyes. "Hikigaya-kun is mine, and mine alone. You have no place next to him." The two of us stayed put for several seconds, until I finally let go of Isshiki, and she nearly fell over, staggering back a few steps as she looked at me in shock and disbelief. Now I hope she gets the message.

"Yukino...senpai… That… way of thinking… it isn't right." Isshiki said weakly, taking a deep breath before continuing. "It isn't… healthy." Not… healthy? Yes, perhaps it is slightly extreme, however… it is entirely justified. I need Hachi, and I know he needs me. I'm certain Isshiki-san would feel the same way if her circumstances were the same.

But they aren't.

She hasn't gone through the same things I have.

She could never understand.

"...The only thing that isn't right here is how you believed you had any chance with the one meant for me. This isn't simply about liking someone, Isshiki-san, but I wouldn't expect you to understand." I said to Isshiki and took a deep breath, feeling that the adrenaline of the situation was the only thing that kept away the memories Isshiki's comment had almost caused to resurface. "I do not wish to hurt you, Isshiki-san. I have said what I wanted to say, but I will warn you. If the next time we need to speak of this same topic comes…" I looked at Isshiki coldly, seeing her flinching under my glare. "...I will not hesitate to use more than my words to try and make you give up." I kept my gaze on Isshiki for a few moments, then closed my eyes and walked past her, stopping a couple of steps in front of her and glancing back. "I believe we are done here, Isshiki-san. I truly hope you'll take I said to heart and stop pursuing Hikigaya-kun. Oh, and if you dare try to speak about this to anyone… Like I said, I truly do not wish to harm you, but if it comes to it…" I stared at Isshiki's honey-coloured eyes for another few seconds, then turned fully and continued walking away.

I kept my mind empty as I simply walked, until I saw the train station in front of me and stopped. Immediately, I felt my knees shaking, but managed to keep my balance. That was… the second time I've done something like that. And yet again… I'm feeling conflicted. This… this is who I am… I looked down at my hand, seeing that it was shaking, then forced it into a fist. No, I shouldn't be afraid. I had to do it. All of this… it's necessary to ensure that things will turn out fine. I must keep the others away from Hachi, because if I don't…

I shook my head, then took a few deep breaths of the cold air to clear away my thoughts. It will be fine, Yukino.

Everything will be fine as long as I have him.

Having successfully calmed myself down, I walked into the train station to board the train that would take me back home.

AN: Alright, so, funny thing is, I actually had about half of this chapter done in March/April, but I was also working on another chapter for another story at the same time, so I delayed this. At one point, I realized it had been ages since the last update, but I didn't want to release a half-assed chapter for you guys, even if it was long enough by my standards. Thus, we get to this a couple months later. Like I said at the beginning, I'm sorry for taking so long, but I'm ultimately happy with how this turned out. A lot of development in the chapter, and also some hints at what might be in store for the future.

Tomorrow, when I'll be uploading this chapter onto Quotev, I'll also be updating my journal there (yeah, remember when I told you guys about that?) regarding the way I write, hopefully giving some insight into why I am so slow with updates. And maybe address some other things as well from reviews, like I initially planned to use that feature.

Now, until the next chapter (I'll be trying to get it out faster this time, but depending on how things go for me in about a month, I might be forced to put my stories on hiatus – more info on that in the coming weeks so keep an eye on my profile), I bid you all farewell, and cheerio!