Friday afternoon, the school bell sounding. Naota took his time, gathering his belongings slowly. Without Gaku and Masashi in his class anymore, there was no one around to rush him.
Everything remained the same. Nothing ever changed; he knew exactly what he'd go home to. And there was absolutely no desire to rush anywhere.
The other students left, chairs clattering as they slid across the floor. His classmates were eager for the weekend. Even the teacher had gone.
Naota knew there was nothing to be eager about. Everything they did this weekend would be just he same as what they did last weekend; why couldn't they understand that?
One other person remained.
Ninamori ambled her way over from her desk by the lage bay windows to Naota's, in the corner and half-gloom away from the sunlight. The way she walked reminded him of the way Miyu-Miyu looked when hunting some small prey, back when Miyu-Miyu was young and lithe enough for hunting.
If things had changed, perhaps he'd be inclined to think something was different about her.
She placed her hands palm-down on the desk and leaned forward. "Planning on doing your homework this weekend, Naota?"
He chose not to answer and shuffled his papers instead.
"You're becoming more and more of a delinquent, you know."
Her overbearing attitude. The way her eyes glinted when she looked down at him. Even the words she used were the same as before.
"If this were twenty years ago, you'd be in for a caning."
He snapped his messenger bag closed and finally looked up at her, face-to-face. "I don't see how it's any of your business. You're not even the class president anymore." He'd said it just to see her flinch.
It was barely visible, but she did flinch. Maybe it was only a reflex. "Since when was it wrong to show a little concern in a fellow classmate's well-being?"
Naota rolled his eyes at her and swiveled in his seat to get up.
He felt her hand on his shoulder. "Naota," she said. "You're really stupid, aren't you?"
"What?" he spat indignantly. "Just because I choose not to do my homework doesn't mean I'm too dumb to-"
"It's not about that," she interrupted, tossing back her short hair crossly. "You can't even pick up on when a girl is hitting on you as obviously as that?"
Naota felt a hot blush rise in his cheeks. He cursed his body's blatantcy. "Of... of course I can! But that's not the point, is it?"
"You're just messing with me, that's all." Very decidedly, he looked in the opposite direction, hoping to hide his flushed face.
She flicked his ear with the hand that had been resting on his shoulder. "Look at someone when they're talking to you; that's very rude." And maybe he wouldn't admit it to himself in words, but perhaps he suddenly missed the feeling of the pressure of her hand in that one spot on his arm.
And maybe it was the dimming light in the room, but suddenly she looked more serious. Older. More mature. "This may not sound like it has anything to do with anything, but... remember when my dad was involved with that scandal?"
"Something happened then. To make me decide... it's worthless to try to lie to yourself. Because you're the only person who knows all your secrets, right?"
Naota gaped at her, and all that was on his mind was how close their faces seemed to be all of a sudden.
She was looking away, though. Out the window, in spite of having just scolded him for not facing her while they were talking. "There's no point in trying to make yourself feel the opposite of what's real. And sometimes... when you go with the flow, things just feel easier. You just feel... better. Not weighed down anymore."
She pulled something out of her bag but pulled it quickly out of view.
"Do you miss her, Naota-kun?" she asked before he'd gotten much of a chance to think about the mystery object.
"Who? Who do you mean?" he stammered.
"Your 'wife.' Your housekeeper. Either. Both."
His mouth struggled to form the words. "How... how did you..."
She held up the object she'd taken out of her bag earlier. A soda bottle filled with a familiar-looking pink drink.
"You've been-! Has he been printing those trashy zines again?"
"No," replied Ninamori nonchalantly. "That's not why I go. But," she added with a shake of the bottle, "it's the only place in town that still sells this stuff."
Naota tried to tell himself he didn't care, but in all honesty, how dare she, how dare she go snooping around in his life behind his back, and how dare-
"I'm not going to bother trying to lie to myself about the way I feel about you." Her head turned suddenly- her eyes looking into his. Making him squirm in his seat, making him wish he could teleport to someplace where this conversation wasn't happening. "I'm not even going to bother tying to explain why. But that's not the point, is it?"
She seemed to get even closer now, and it seemed as if her pupils filled up the entire range of his vision. "I don't want you to lie about your feelings, Naota. Whether you feel the same way or not... that's not the point, is it? To be honest, I'd get over it eventually." I'd get over it eventually. I'm not going to lie to make you feel better, Naota-kun. I'm not going to lie to try to make myself feel like a better person. This is just the way it is: you are not the center of my world. But it would be nice to have you in my world. That is the way I feel, clear and simple. No faking here.
"The point is. The point is that I'm asking you to do the same. Don't lie to me, and most of all, don't lie to yourself. How do you feel about that? About me?"
Naota's eyes burned and he realized he'd forgotten to blink all the while. His eyes closed, tearing, and his face slid into his hands.
In the moment of silence that hung over them, sickly like a swarm of flies over garbage on a hot summer day, he could hear the clock tick and tick and tick.
Finally, he heard her move. Picking up her bag and slinging it over her shoulder. Popping open the bottle of soda as she turned to leave.
He grabbed her by the wrist. The point is: maybe still I miss that person, maybe I always will. You wanted me to be honest and there it is. But maybe I shouldn't let what she meant to me then keep a hold on me in this way, keep me at standstill. Maybe I don't want to push you away like it seems sometimes. And maybe by moving on... it could be a way of proving myself to that person. Did she ever believe in me? Do you believe in me? But that's not the point, is it?
She turned back and glanced down at him. He moved as if to speak or maybe to rise from his seat, but before he could, a smile spread across her face. She gently twisted herself out of his grasp. "See you on Monday, Ta-kun."