If you're just dying to read disclaimers, beg and grovel first — then I'll let you read 'em on my profile.

And let's see, I'm posting supplementary notes, background research, and other miscellaneous things for each chapter of "Falter" on my blog, so go take a look if you're interested. The notes are not necessary in understanding the story, but may be interesting in their own right.

"I'm sorry, everyone. I have something to take care of today so I can't stay and help," Mihoko apologised.

"Please don't worry about it, Captain. We'll help the first-years clean up."

"Senpai's right, Captain. You do so much for the club already."

"Thank you, everyone. I'll see you all tomorrow then," Mihoko smiled. She nodded kindly at the two first-years who were helping out, and was about to turn to leave when she suddenly remembered something. "Oh, and Yoshitome-san, please tell Kana I left if you see her. She'll probably be looking for me otherwise."

"Okay, Captain. See you tomorrow."

"See you tomorrow, Captain," the rest echoed.

Mihoko waved to her club members and slid the door close. She made her way down the hall with schoolbag in hand, affably nodding to the few students still wandering and not at their respective club rooms yet. When Mihoko turned a corner and saw the corridor was empty, she allowed her thoughts to wander to more pressing matters. Ueno-san had invited her and the Kazekoshi club regulars to a joint training camp, along with Tsuruga and Ryuumonbuchi's members. Her brow knitted at the thought.

She headed down the stairs distractedly. Ueno-san, who had remembered her from three years prior, had invited her. She headed to the lobby and counted the rows to her shoe locker. Ueno-san had remembered her, despite having only played each other once. Taking out her penny loafers, Mihoko changed into them and slipped her indoor shoes back into her cubby.

Clasping the handle of her schoolbag tightly, she walked out of the building with a brisk trot, oblivious to her surroundings. Thoughts of Ueno-san and the three games they had played filled her head. Mihoko felt a twinge of nostalgia when she imagined the Ueno-san from three years ago once again. Her fiery confidence; her devastating, intense psychological play; her parted hair tied loosely into twintails; her devilish grin and careless charm —

Mihoko shook her head quickly to dispel the thought and roughly pressed a hand to her cheek.

What was she thinking? She was supposed to respond to the invitation in the capacity of Kazekoshi's Captain, not as Fukuji Mihoko. And yet, here she was, fibbing to Yoshitome-san and Bundou-san about having plans just because she was driven to distraction by her inability to make up her mind. The way the club members almost idolised her and what she did only made her feel guiltier. Certainly, it didn't make her decision any easier. Not that she was even anywhere closer to making one. She couldn't even decided whether hurting four club members' feelings or being unable to see Ueno-san was worse.

Mihoko briefly wished she weren't in the mahjong club.


Mihoko turned and smiled when her eyes locked on the club member. "Watanabe-san! Are you heading home now?"

"Yeah, I have to pick up my little cousin today. I'll make sure I stay later tomorrow. See you tomorrow after school!"

"See you," she called out before she resumed walking toward the station, her thoughts now diverted to Watanabe-san who was doing quite well recently. Mihoko could tell that she had originally joined mostly because her friends had, but it was evident that Watanabe-san had begun to like mahjong after having familiarised herself with the rules and learning how to count quickly. Mihoko smiled at the thought. Was there anything more she could wish for than club members being able to enjoy mahjong?

Her schoolbag hit her thigh rhythmically as she slowed her pace to a stop, bringing her back to her predicament. She clenched the handle moist from her grip and paused briefly before pulling the letter out from her schoolbag. Clasping her schoolbag under her arm, she lightly ran her fingers along her name printed on the front. How had Ueno-san learnt the characters for her name? Mihoko wistfully imagined Ueno-san having gone out of her way to find it out three years ago... then remembered it all this time.

Mihoko laughed at her own stupid, fanciful thinking. Of course, Ueno-san just saw it from the rankings during the prefectural qualifiers this year. Why would she have remembered a random girl's name?

Mihoko uncharacteristically scuffed the sole of her shoe against the road, sending a small pebble careening down the road. She didn't even know why she was still enamoured with Ueno-san. It was indisputable that, yes, she had developed a full-blown crush on Ueno-san three years earlier. But why did the feelings come back so easily now, and why had she continued to look for the name 'Ueno Hisa' at the prefectural qualifiers and nationals the last two years?

Her fascination with Ueno-san had abated by the time she convinced herself that the girl had moved to another prefecture suddenly and abruptly. But to be able to see her this year and to play against her distinctive mahjong playing style once again...

She absently traced 'Ueno Hisa' out on the envelope beside her name with her finger and started to draw an umbrella over the two names before she caught herself.

Sighing reproachfully, Mihoko slipped the envelope back into her schoolbag and began walking again. What was the point? Ueno-san probably wasn't even interested in girls.

Mihoko drew in a deep breath and let it out. Enough moping for one day.

The term was ending in a week, but there were still a lot of things to do. She was going to have a meeting with the coach the day after to discuss the direction of the club, though she knew it was a formality at best, as the coach had ceased to care. The other day, she had overheard the coach negotiating a new contract over the phone. It would not surprise her if Coach Kubo cut her contract with Kazekoshi in pursuit of something more lucrative, before the results from the last two years' prefectural qualifiers dragged her name down. Especially since unseeded schools won both years.

Then the school board would hire another coach in order to maintain the reputation of their mahjong club. It would be better for Kana if that were the case, despite Coach Kubo being a great coach from a purely technical standpoint. The poor girl was terrified of her, as were most of the other members. And rightly so. She brought her hand up to her cheek, in remembrance of the slaps the coach had given freely. Her eye narrowed briefly as a flash of anger overcame her.

She shifted her thoughts. It was hard to believe that she had only been Captain for three, four short months; the responsibility she felt toward her fellow club members weighed on her heavily. So far she managed to find a balance between school work and club activities, but the second term was just around the corner. Whether she could keep up or not and whether she could continue to protect everyone from the coach's ire...

Perhaps it would be better to consider things as they came.

She had yet to proofread her report for her Lit class. She could probably finish doing it before dinner, since for once, she was going home early on a school day. But before that, she would have to make a small detour to the convenience store. Her brother's spring term finals were to start the week her summer vacation began, and they were nearly out of snacks at home. And because he got the munchies whenever he started studying, stockpiling some massive arsenal was in order. Mihoko smiled at the thought. When she entered university next year, she would finally be able to dismiss his usual excuses that studying for college exams meant he expended excessive amounts of energy — energy that required going through, say, a dozen Purin within two days in order to replenish.

There was no guarantee that he wouldn't just polish off the new supply of snacks that she was going to buy, though. Then, Mihoko thought cheerfully, he'd just have to buy his own snacks over the exam period. Mihoko walked into the train station and pulled out her Suica smart card from her bag. She ran the card over the sensor and subconsciously quickened her pace through the ticket gate when she caught a pusher attendant staring intently at her. Deftly raising her hand to her face, she pretended to fix her bangs as she covered the side of her face from his view.

The way he was staring had made her feel uncomfortable. Maybe he had seen the prefectural qualifiers broadcast on the local channel, recognised her, and remembered her habit of only keeping one eye open. There was no helping it, though. At least, she thought, filmed footage made her heterochromia fairly unnoticeable from a distance on LCD screens. It was her Kazekoshi uniform that made him recognise her and stare, she decided, as she fell into line for a train to approach.

She felt a small stone in her shoe. It had probably gotten in on her way to the station. It lodged against her heel dully as she shifted her weight. Mihoko bent down and picked it out as she heard the distinctive pitch of the train's approach. Hopping on one foot, she slipped her loafer back on and hurriedly put her Suica away as several commuters disembarked from the train. So much for being graceful.

Mihoko filed into the train and held onto a handle as the train announcements played. The train was noticeably emptier than usual; it would be a few more hours or so before the rush hour and before her dad returned home. The departure melody played, and Mihoko's thoughts shifted to the supplies she should buy at the convenience store. The train pulled out of the station slowly and sped up, rocking side to side gently. She would call home after she got off and see if her mother needed anything at Sunkus. They were running low on shampoo, too, if memory served her right.

And maybe they could play a few hanchans after dinner, but she was not sure if all four of them would be able to make time for an hour or two of mahjong on a weekday. Mihoko wondered if she would have enough time to finish her report before dinner. She had to type it out after proofreading, after all, and her computer had started to act up recently. It had already been awhile since she got the computer, and even though she had a keyboard cover and tried to use it as infrequently as possible, she knew it would spazz on her sooner or later.

The train pulled into another station, and several passengers got off while a couple of schoolgirls got on. Mihoko recognised their uniform; they were from an all-girls middle school nearby. Glancing askance with her left eye, Mihoko felt slightly envious the girls could text so dexterously. And of course, they didn't have a leather case for their sleek, streamlined phones. She wanted something cuter, something more suitable for a high school girl, not the black leather case she had that heated up uncomfortably in the summer heat.

Mihoko tore her eyes away when her station was announced on the intercom and she edged over to the door. Getting off the train, she waited until she was out the station before pulling out her cell phone and speed dialling home. Mihoko started walking as she waited for her mother to answer.

"Hello, Fukuji residence."

"Mom, it's me."

"Mihoko? Is everything all right? You usually don't call this early."

"I'm fine, I just left school a bit earlier today. I'm heading over to Sunkus right now; do you need anything?"

"Hmm... I think we're fine for now. Oh, wait! Can you get me a copy of Croissant? I forgot to buy it last week."

"Okay, mom. Be back soon."

"Be careful on your way home."

Mihoko flipped her phone shut and walked the rest of the distance to the convenience store. Entering Sunkus, she took a red basket from the stack and picked out a copy of the magazine her mother requested, before turning to the aisle for body care products. She grabbed a few bottles of Asience and made a beeline for the snacks section. Mihoko picked out a box of strawberry Pocky for herself and three boxes of dark chocolate Pocky for her brother.

Then she proceeded to grab three bags of Meiji cheese potato crisps, two boxes of Crunky Biscuits, and a box of brown sugar mochi for the whole family. And of course... Purin. Mihoko took ten and put them in her basket. After paying for the goods with her Suica, she made her way home quickly as it was starting to get dark.

Mihoko unlocked the front door and walked in, opening her right eye after the door clicked shut. She blinked a few moments as her eye adjusted to the brightness before locking the door and taking her loafers off. She put on her slippers and propped her schoolbag against the wall.

"I'm back," Mihoko called out as she grabbed two rustling bags full of snacks. She slipped the magazine into the rack before making her way to the kitchen.

"Welcome home," her mother Midori called out without turning. She was cutting vegetables for dinner. "Did you buy a lot of snacks for Takashi? I remembered right after hanging up, but I realised that was probably why you went to Sunkus in the first place."

"I did buy some for nii-san, and I picked up some mochi as well," Mihoko replied as she put most of the snacks into the snack cupboard. "I didn't buy too much though. He just eats more if there's more at home."

"Isn't that the truth." Midori wiped her hands dry. She took some meat from the fridge before pausing and looking at her daughter critically. "Is everything really all right at school, Mihoko? You never come home this early."

"Everything's fine, I just wanted a bit more time with my homework."

"You'll just think I'm nagging again, but you should start attending cram school if you're having trouble now. You have entrance exams to worry about—"

"Mom, I'm fine. I just need more time this week since the term ends soon, remember?"

"Right. But if you need to go to cram school," Midori said while gesturing emphatically with the meat in hand, "there's a good one that Satou-san from next door highly recommends. Your entrance exams are more important than your club activities, even if you're the Captain."

"Okay, I'll think about it." Mihoko placed the folded grocery bags into the drawer and slid it close. "I'm going upstairs now."

Mihoko grabbed the shampoo and darted out of the kitchen. She held the bottles to her chest as she took her schoolbag from the front door. She made her way up the steps quickly before her mother could tell her more about the merits of cram school. It wasn't as though she didn't want to go. But the club was more important now, and she would attend a yobikou to help with her entrance exams only if push came to shove. In the mean time, she would have to make do with supplementary self-study books. She put the bottles away in the cabinet.

Washing and drying her hands off, she entered her bedroom and put her schoolbag down. She flipped the light switch on and unbuttoned her blouse while she nudged the door close with her elbow. She shed her uniform and hung it on the hanger neatly before getting into more comfortable clothes, consisting of an old pair of mid-thigh denim shorts and a loose raglan sleeve tee. Sitting down on her bed, Mihoko rolled her socks off one by one before shuffling over to her desk in her slippers. She sat down at her desk and pulled up her draft for the report and began proofreading.

And began proofreading.

To her dismay, she found herself unable to read past the second line, much less proofread the whole eight pages. Her mind just would not cooperate; the characters barely registered in her mind. Mihoko paused and wavered, then pursed her lips and let the sheets fall haphazardly onto her desk. She closed her eyes and leaned back, resting her head on the back of the chair. She swivelled the chair languidly side to side and felt the tension in her body seeping away and being replaced by a sense of overwhelming tiredness that she didn't know she felt. She stopped moving the chair after a few more halfhearted swivels, and opened her eyes slowly to stare up at the ceiling for a long, long moment, feeling very alone all of a sudden.


She'd have to make her decision soon, wouldn't she?